I have fond memories of my father cutting my hair. My dad cut my brother Bob, and my hair on Sunday mornings while Mom made breakfast and Abbott and Costello movies played in the background. The long process resulted in a buzz cut, a crooked one if we turned our heads or coughed.
A few years later, Dad became friends with a charming Italian gentleman 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 my dad’s scissors once and for all. The fees for all these projects were always the same; a bottle of wine.
When I became a dad, I looked forward to a similar father-son bonding moment. We’d get haircuts, then go for a slice of pizza afterward.
During Esther’s pregnancy, we spent hours discussing our unborn child’s hair the way Democrats and Republicans debated infrastructure. It was second only to agreeing on the baby’s name. I’ve had short hair for most of my life, except for a brief mullet experiment in the early 90s. Yeah, I know, but the 90s will never be remembered as a great style decade. Esther made clear that she didn’t want her son with a buzz cut. I was okay with that, but after seeing some of her cousin’s kids sporting Prince Valiant haircuts, we negotiated, agreeing on a length somewhere in the middle. It proved communication worked and saved me the stress of having a barber cut that shaggy bob down to an acceptable length while she was at work.
Cristian waited over a year for his first haircut. We weren’t lazy parents, his birthday is in early October, and his size and long wavy hair made him a perfect Baby Superman for Halloween. We had no problem agreeing on a barber.
A week after Halloween, Franco brought his scissors to the house for the long-awaited haircut. I got sentimental realizing Cristian was the third generation whose hair he cut. Sentiment aside, the haircut didn’t go well. Although Esther did her best to distract the baby with his favorite toys or her iPhone, he twisted, squirmed, and screamed. This concerned us both, but Franco did his best to reassure us. “This is pretty common for kids his age,” he told us. “You should hear all the screaming when mothers bring their kids to the shop on Saturday mornings.”
It wasn’t until they diagnosed Cristian as on the spectrum that I learned about the sensory issues autistic children experience. They could be under-sensitive to pain yet hypersensitive to clipping fingernails and haircuts. For Cristian, the vibration of metal clippers is like someone running their fingers across a blackboard.
Before we became parents, Esther and her friends would speak about how a friend’s child wouldn’t wear shoes or clothes with tags on them because of sensory issues. Although I said nothing, I thought it was all bullshit. It was just another case of over-indulgent parents enabling a spoiled child in an era of participation trophies. A few years later, in stunned disbelief, I watched Cristian’s feet flinch involuntarily whenever Esther clipped his toenails while he slept. It’s amazing how one’s perspective changes.
A few months later, we asked Franco to stop cutting Cristian’s hair. It had nothing to do with the quality of the haircuts, but he’s a dear family friend, and Cristian would start crying whenever he saw him.
Cristian’s haircuts soon became well-choreographed family projects. He’d sit in Esther’s lap in the barber’s chair with me standing on one side and Eddie, the barber on the other. Eddie directed us, saying, “Hold his head, I’m going to cut on the right side,” while Esther had her arms around his waist and I held his head or chest, and Eddie and I kept a watchful eye for a headbutt or kick in the crotch. I never thought I’d need to wear a cup to the barbershop to protect me from an overstimulated child.
Esther and I kept busy looking online and asking friends for a better solution. A parent in a support group we attend had similar experiences with her son and recommended a barbershop in Whitestone that caters to autistic children.
We got a great vibe during our first visit. Ray, the barber, took his time putting a pair of anxious parents at ease. He showed us specially designed plastic clippers that reduced vibrations. He told us, “Give me three haircuts, and you’ll see a difference.”
Three visits later, in early March, Cristian was in a better place than when we started. Trips to the barbershop were no longer anxiety-inducing experiences ending in a twenty-minute wrestling match. Things were looking up; then we were smacked with an obstacle none of us expected — the Coronavirus.
Shortly after Cristian’s haircut, our lives changed. They issued work-from-home orders to flatten the curve. Cristian’s school curriculum changed from in-person to remote learning. Managing his remote learning while working from home became our new reality. People were running scared, stocking up on bleach, N-95 masks, and toilet paper. Esther and I weren’t worried about the next haircut — but with keeping my ninety-year-old mom and our five-year-old son safe in a global pandemic.
As May rolled around, Cristian and I were getting shaggy. With barbershops closed, I ordered a set of clippers from Amazon, and Esther and I watched lots of YouTube videos learning basic haircutting techniques. On the Sunday before Memorial Day, we were determined to cut Cristian’s hair.
I started cutting Cristian’s hair in our backyard while Esther kept him entertained. The plan lasted less than five minutes. A squirming Cristian wanted Mommy. I get it; she has the gentler touch. So, we improvised. Esther took the clippers and worked slowly and steadily. We let him stand instead of sit on a chair, giving him many breaks, and brought a container of sensory beads. Putting his hand into the container relaxed him. The haircut wasn’t as good as one of Ray’s, but the experience was better than we expected.
Two months later, at the end of July, we took him to the barbershop after it reopened. It had been almost five months since Ray last cut Cristian’s hair, and he immediately noticed a difference. Cristian squirmed a little but didn’t cry. We put Chuggington, one of his favorite programs, on the TV to keep him entertained. Ray then tried an experiment, asking Esther to leave the shop to see how Cristin would react. He didn’t notice and even said, “I’m done,” when Ray finished.
Cristian’s haircuts are now different than they once were. Esther doesn’t come with us. She’ll get her nails done while we go for haircuts. Ray welcomes Cristian with a high five and a smile. Sitting in a different chair, I listen as Cristian tells Ray about his favorite cartoon or what color lollipop he wants when they’re done. I smile, thinking, I’ll take him to the playground when we’re done, but not until we get a slice of pizza.