I have a fond childhood memory getting haircuts from my father. On Sunday mornings after church, while Mom made breakfast, and Abbott and Costello movies played in the background, Dad cut my brother Bob and my hair. The long process usually resulted in a buzzcut — a crooked one — if we turned our heads or sneezed.
A few years later, Dad became friends with a charming Italian man named Franco, when his family moved next door to us. Dad helped Franco with household projects, and Franco, who was a barber, cut our hair — retiring Dad’s scissors once and for all. The fee for these projects was a bottle of wine.
When my wife Esther and I became parents, I looked forward to a similar father/son bonding moment. We’d get haircuts then go for a slice of pizza afterward. We waited over a year for Cristian’s first haircut. We weren’t lazy parents but his birthday is in October. Cristian’s size and long wavy hair made him a perfect Baby Superman for Halloween.
A week after Halloween, Franco came over for the long-awaited haircut. It didn’t go well. Although Esther did her best to distract the baby with her iPhone and his favorite toys, he squirmed, cried and screamed. This concerned us, but Franco reassured us, telling us this was common for kids his age.
It wasn’t until Cristian was diagnosed as On the Spectrum, that we learned about the sensory issues autistic children experience. They could be under-sensitive to pain, yet hyper-sensitive to clipping nails or haircuts. Esther clips Cristian’s nails while he sleeps, and his feet still flinch involuntarily while clipping his toenails. We found a solution for his nails — haircuts are another matter.
For Cristian, the vibration of metal clippers is like someone running their fingernails across a blackboard. Franco no longer cuts Cristian’s hair, he became afraid of him and started crying whenever he’d visit. Cristian’s haircuts are now a well-choreographed family project. He sits in Mommy’s lap in the barber’s chair, while I stand on one side with the barber on the other. Working quickly, I hold Cristian’s head or chest, as the barber cuts one side or the other, while keeping a watchful eye for a headbutt or a kick in the crotch. He’s only five, but a well-placed kick still hurts.
We recently found a glimmer of hope. A parent in a support group we attend recommended a barbershop in Whitestone catering to the autistic community. During our first visit, Cristian’s barber told us, “Give me three haircuts, and you’ll see a difference.” He was sensitive to Cristian’s specific needs and uses specially designed plastic clippers.
His haircuts still haven’t gone smoothly, but they aren’t the traumatic ordeal they once were. Considering where we started that’s progress.