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When a Stylist Lost It While Cutting the Hair of My Son With Autism

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I was surprised how much one afternoon at the hair salon threw me for a loop. My son, Nolan, and our family had been through so many tough moments that I thought I was more resilient, had a tougher skin and couldn’t get rattled easily. But I was rattled that day in the hair salon.

My son was born with a severe cardiac defect and has had five open-heart surgeries and too many other procedures and operations to count. He wouldn’t eat as an infant from being intubated so many times and had to have a feeding tube implanted in his stomach for a couple of years. During one of his early heart surgeries, he had three strokes and ended up on life support and nearly died.

His stay in the hospital was supposed to last seven to eight days, but he was there for three months. He was also diagnosed with autism at the age of 3.

We had been through a lot in those first few years and celebrated every small achievement like it was a world record. We had a huge party with all of our family and friends on his first birthday to celebrate that he had survived such a daunting year. He was a blessing and a miracle in so many ways, and we were thrilled with the little things and so happy to have moments that were typical in any family, like getting a haircut.

Nolan was 8 years old the day we went to the hair salon. He still struggled with language and sensory issues and had a hard time sitting still. I tried to set him up for success by saying we could go get ice cream if he and his brothers all sat still and did a good job in the salon chair. Nolan was repeating his plan: “Don’t wiggle, eyes up, sit still.” We had written down the plan on a little piece of paper so he could see the schedule: first haircut then ice cream.

When Nolan sat down in the chair, I explained to the hairstylist that he had autism and could tend to be hard to work with. I asked her if she was OK with that and she said she was.

As she began to cut his hair, he began to shift his shoulders up and squirm in his seat. She asked me to “hold him down.” I was thrown off by her request but tried to sit by him to calm him down and talk him through it. We practiced counting by twos and spelling simple words since this has always been a good way to redirect him. He did much better counting his numbers, and the hairstylist was able to use the scissors to cut his hair.

The calm, however, all fell apart when she took the clippers out. He got upset at the noise and the vibration of the clippers on his neck and began to wiggle out of the chair. I had been through this many times before and tried to explain to her that she needed to give him a minute to feel the clippers in his hand to understand it wouldn’t hurt. I told her he could be fearful and overly sensitive to things he felt could hurt him. For example, he would panic anytime someone tried to put a Band-Aid on him. After getting IVs and his blood drawn so many times, he associated Band-Aids with pain and trauma. Little things like that scared him.

At this point, the hairstylist lost it. She threw the clippers down on her cabinet and said, “He is done. I don’t have to put up with this. You should just shave his head and be done with it. Why does it matter if he has a decent haircut anyway?” 

Mary Levinson the mighty.2-001

In all of my time parenting Nolan, I have always worked hard to help people better understand him. I was used to people collaborating with me to find solutions, not being judgmental and giving up so easily. I asked Nolan to stand up and I did something I had never done before. I lifted his shirt to show her his red angry scars from his most recent heart surgery. As I started to well up with tears, I told her she didn’t deserve to cut his hair and he was one of the strongest people I had ever known and only the privileged got to be in his presence.

She was dumbstruck and began to stutter out a weak apology. I threw money on the checkout desk to pay for the haircuts and walked out shaking. I stood on the sidewalk with Nolan while my other boys finished their haircuts. I paced back and forth and tried to fight back the tears.

Then Nolan looked up at me and said, “I got my haircut so now it’s time for ice cream, right?” I started to laugh in that moment — it all became so clear. His simple interpretation of what had happened was all that I needed. He was proud he had followed his schedule, and he wasn’t worried about the incident in the hair salon. The purity in the way he goes through life was once again eye-opening for me.

He often isn’t able to analyze situations or to read people’s feelings, and I was so grateful for that innocence in that moment. “Yes,” I told him, “let’s get ice cream because you got your haircut.” Nolan and his brothers and I completed the afternoon laughing and having ice cream together. It turned out to be a fun outing for us all.

In the end, I didn’t even get his horrible haircut fixed. I saw his uneven hairline as a reminder that things aren’t always smooth, and that was OK. I would rather have a crooked, uneven but happy, resilient child than a manageable “perfect” one the hairstylist was looking for that day.

Originally published: August 12, 2015
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