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What Having My Hair Braided Feels Like as a Black Autistic Person

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The chair feels like I’m seated on a cast iron pan set over a fire. The longer I sat, the more I desperately needed to get up. Fidgeting and squirming, constantly repositioning myself, it’s like I could feel every single second in my bones. It feels like I’m being touched by thousands of hands, poking and prodding me. When I was little, I’d gradually slide out of my seat, hoping I could slowly inch away from the sensations.

It’s like I’m being tortured. Every step drags on for ages as I feel agitated, anxious, overwhelmed. I feel every single hair follicle in my scalp, like waves of electric currents running along each strand.

I didn’t have the language at the time to describe how stressful it was to have my hair done. I’d grown up being told that I was tender-headed and that that was why having someone’s hands in my hair felt so painful. I didn’t know that it was overloading my senses or that it was anxiety-inducing being forced to remain in the same spot for hours in discomfort. Hands are always too rough and I’d always have my hand in my head, holding the base of the braid that’s connected to my roots because no one seemed to understand how much it hurt having small individual areas of my hair pulled and yanked on as hair was weaved and braided through and around it. I could feel every movement creep around my skin, through my jaw, and even into the nerves of my teeth. I’d spend hours with gritted teeth and fists balled up at my sides, hoping it would be over soon, reaching up to check how much hair was left before the finish line approached and trying to self-regulate when I realized I still had a long way to go. Bathroom breaks were frequent, just so I could get 2-3 minutes where nothing was touching me and I was free to move around.

Being Black, it’s ingrained in us to expect that our hair is “hard to manage.” This meant that everything I felt was supposed to be “normal” and I was expected to get used to it with time as it came with the territory — but I never did. When I got old enough to, I took my hair care and styling into my own hands before realizing I was autistic. It was a world of a difference to style my hair with the knowledge of how the process already made me feel and what I could do to make things easier. It took years before I felt comfortable enough to allow someone else to have their hands in my head again.

I could only imagine what the experience would have been like if those who did my hair in the past knew that I was autistic and that I could have my hair done easily with gentleness.

Getty image by Marilyn Nieves.

Originally published: February 23, 2022
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