When my son George was four, I mastered the art of the Stealth Haircut. Normal haircuts were impossible, because George, who has autism, couldn’t handle anyone touching his head. The simple act of washing his hair was, in those days, a two-person job that involved my husband holding a screaming, struggling George while I washed his hair as fast as humanly possible. It was an ordeal that exhausted the entire family, including George’s little brother who would dive for cover as soon as the plastic basin came out.

When Autism And Haircuts Collide

We couldn’t do haircuts in the same way, for obvious safety reasons, and so I resorted to the Stealth Haircut, done in the dead of night under cover of darkness. I would wait until George was well and truly asleep, and then, wearing dark clothing that would camouflage me in the event of an unexpected awakening, I would sidle into his room holding the scissors close by my side. I felt like a burglar, sneaking around my own home in the middle of the night.

I would leave the door open just enough for me to be able to make out George’s silhouette in the darkness. If I was lucky, his head would be positioned in a way that would allow me to remove the hat that he insisted on wearing all the time, even to bed. As gently and silently as I could, I would cut whatever hair was exposed. Usually, I would only be able to reach the hair on one side of his head, and the other side would have to be done another night. For a few days, I would have to send him to school with his hair long on one side and short on the other, like a heavy metal musician from the 80’s.

We have come a long, long way in the seven or so years since those days. George is still hyper-sensitive to anything or anyone touching his head, and he still wears a hat all the time. But with enough preparation, I can get him to sit down for a haircut. OK, so “enough preparation” means over a month of advance notice with several conversations about it each day, and the haircut cannot last longer than three minutes, but progress is progress.

George’s most recent haircut was on March 1st, and we started talking about it midway through January. Every day, I would tell George that he was getting a haircut in March. He tried valiantly to negotiate a May or June haircut instead.

“Haircut in March,” I insisted.

On the morning of March 1st, he came to me with an earnest expression and looked me directly in the eye – something he only does when he is anxious. With distress lacing his sweet, lyrical voice, he said, “Haircut today, Mommy?”

I had to blink back the tears that suddenly filled my eyes. Here was this boy, clearly dreading what was to come, but bravely facing up to it anyway. It was one of the many moments that reminds me of how courageous kids with autism can really be.

I sat with him on the couch and showed him the scissors I would be using. I let him hold them and examine them, and I used them to demonstrate how I could cut off a lock of my own hair without it hurting.

Then I led him to a chair in the kitchen and he sat down. Throughout the three-minute haircut, he whimpered very slightly and kept his eyes squeezed tightly shut. But he sat more or less still, and he nervously cooperated when I asked him to move his head this way or that way.

I pronounced the job done with about five seconds to spare, and he was up from the chair and off like a shot. He ran into the bathroom to look in the mirror, and reappeared a minute later with a giant smile on his face.

“Nice haircut,” he said, beaming from ear to ear.

I grabbed his hands and started dancing around the kitchen with him. We twirled round and round, grinning at each other, celebrating this victory that was so small and yet so big.

Kirsten Doyle was born in South Africa and has lived in Toronto since 2000. After a successful career in computer programming and I.T. project management, she decided to follow her passion into a career as a freelance writer. She and her husband have two sons, one of whom has autism. In 2009, after years of being a dedicated couch potato, Kirsten signed up to run a half-marathon to raise funds for autism services. She has been a running nut ever since, and continues to run for autism every year. She can be found at www.kirstendoyle.com, or at her blog, www.runningforautism.com.