Autism After 16 Column on Haircuts Prompts Outpouring of Response

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Haircuts can be a big challenge for kids with autism. Autism After 16's newest columnist, Liane Kupferberg Carter, shares her family's experience with managing haircuts and receives an overwhelming response from readers.

Photo of Liane Kupferberg Carter

Liane Kupferberg Carter

"I think of dental visits, doctors’ visits, even showers … things that are so ordinary for parents of neurotypical kids and yet so terribly fraught with panic—both on our son’s part and on ours. This gives me hope," says a reader.

“Two days before our 19-year-old son Mickey leaves for sleep-away camp, he asks to get a haircut. No big deal, right? But 15 years ago this would have been unthinkable.” So starts Liane Kupferberg Carter’s first column on the website Autism After 16. Carter goes on to share the story of how Mickey went from having a meltdown at the thought of a haircut to welcoming the experience. The column, which first appeared on July 17, has received an outpouring of parent response.

“Your story really touched me,” wrote a reader. “I’m a single father with an autistic son with very limited speech … I remember those dreaded haircut days and going weeks to even months without getting a haircut. I recall the dirty looks that the other customers would give me and my son when my son would act out.”

Another reader points to how haircuts are just one of the everyday challenges of parenting a child with autism. “I think of dental visits, doctors’ visits, even showers … things that are so ordinary for parents of neurotypical kids and yet so terribly fraught with panic—both on our son’s part and on ours. This gives me hope.”

Why are haircuts such a challenge for autistic children? “I think the triggers are different for each child, but the common denominator is sensory overload. There’s just too much input for their nervous systems to process,” suggests Carter. “Haircuts look innocuous, but there are so many sensory challenges involved in ‘simply’ getting a haircut: the clicking scissors or buzzing clippers; the cold spray of a water bottle; the light, tickling sensation of hair falling on the face or neck; the slippery plastic cape around the neck and covering the body; being touched by a stranger who stands too close; being confined in the chair. For a sensory-defensive child, it must feel physically uncomfortable, invasive and threatening.”

Most of the readers’ comments focus on how similar their experiences were—or currently are—to Carter’s. “This is such a trip down memory lane. I remember that our son would slide off the chair and crawl along the bench and floor while the hairdresser kept cutting. I don’t know who was more brave … the hair guy or the autistic child!”

This type of response is precisely why Carter is sharing her experience as an autism parent. “I remember how alone I felt all those years ago, when I didn’t know anyone else with a child like mine,” she says. “There weren’t any books or blogs to turn to. I share my family’s story to let other parents know they are not alone with their struggles. As the parent of an older child on the spectrum, I’ve learned that other parents are often the best resources, and problems that feel intractable or even insurmountable often do resolve.”

In addition to writing for Autism After 16, Carter ‘s work has appeared in more than 40 publications, including the New York Times parenting blog “Motherlode,” the Chicago Tribune, and the Huffington Post. She has long been an autism advocate and contributed to the development of Autism Speaks’ “Transition Toolkit.” Carter is currently at work on a book about her family’s experience with autism.

Autism After 16 is a website devoted to providing information and analysis of adult autism issues. Over 50 percent of its contributing writers are autistic adults, while many others are family members. In addition to opinion pieces, Autism After 16 provides informational articles on accessing adult services, links to useful resources, and a library of videos to help teach independent living skills. You can follow Autism After 16 on Facebook and Twitter.

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Merope Pavlides
Autism After 16
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