Jul 17, 2012 54 Share

Don't Stop Believin'


Barber giving young man a haircut.
iStockphoto

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.

Back then, the barbershop was the scene of some of our worst parenting moments. By 8:00 in the morning of the Dreaded Haircut Day, my husband Marc would already be muttering, “I need a scotch before I can do this”—and he doesn’t even drink scotch. Bracing himself in the barber chair, Marc would clench Mickey in a bear hug and scissor-lock him with his legs. Mickey would flail frantically, headbutting his father and screaming like someone undergoing surgery without anesthesia. Customers gawked. One old man snarled, “Rotten spoiled brat.” Marc sweated through his shirt. When the barber declared he was done, I’d take Mickey into my arms. Sobbing and spent, he’d collapse against my shoulder; smearing us both with snot and hair. We tipped big. Very big.

Unable to face a repeat performance, we’d let long months go between haircuts. Mickey’s great-uncle Jack liked to tease him. “You look like a girl, buddy!” he’d say. Some days when we’d walk by that barbershop on our way to the deli, I could swear that as soon as the barbers saw us passing, they’d quickly pull down the white shade in the window that said “Closed for Lunch.”

But today when we enter the barbershop Mickey sings out a cheery “Hi Dom!” as he plops into the chair. Dom drapes him in a maroon cape, and picks up a shaver. A screen splits in my head: I can still picture that terrified little boy, even as I watch my son, nearly a man, sitting solemnly watching his reflection in the mirror.

I wait quietly, soaking in the sounds of barbershop banter, the sports talk, the sharing of summer plans. It is all so completely ordinary. A radio is tuned to a Lite FM station; the song playing is Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin'.” I reflect how anyone who’d seen my son all those years ago would never have believed that Mickey would one day request—insist—we take him for a haircut. Yet here we are.

“How’s this?” Dom asks. I stand beside Mickey and glance down; the cape is feathered in a field of light brown hairs, as covered as a forest floor.

 “Let’s take it down a bit more,” I suggest. “Is that ok with you, Mick?”

 “Yeah, Mom,” he says.

I remember how we used to sneak into his bedroom at night with a pair of shears to give him a trim as he slept. I think of the time he was 5 and we took him to a local performance by the Paperbag Players; we hadn’t known that they were going to perform a new skit called the "The Horrible, Horrendous, Hideous Haircut." “NO!” Mickey shrieked, and every head in the audience swiveled our way.

Nowadays, Autism Speaks Family Services division offers a haircutting training guide for families and stylists on how to make the experience more positive, but back then there was nothing. Fortunately, one of our behavioral therapists offered to tackle the challenge. Mickey was 7 years old. She took him to the next town over—too many negative associations with our local barber—where they simply practiced strolling by a barber shop. The following week, they stood in the doorway. Eventually they progressed to sitting in the waiting area, watching other people get haircuts; then having Mickey sit in the barber chair. Eventually they introduced the cape; the shaver; the scissors. It took months, but by the time Kathy was done, Mickey was able to—miracle of miracles!—tolerate a haircut.

“This feels better,” Mickey tells me. His hair is crew cut short; I can see scalp. I think he’s more handsome with a little more hair. But Mickey is happy with how he looks, and that’s all that matters.

“Thanks Dom,’ Mickey says softly. Dom dusts a brush with talcum powder, sweeps it across the back of Mickey‘s neck. Mickey stands, turns to me and asks, “Can I have a dollar?”

I give him a $20 bill. He hands it to Dom. “Keep the change,” he says breezily. A man of the world.

“Is Dom proud of me?” Mickey asks.

“Very proud,” I say. “You know what? We’re all very proud of you.”

This whole visit to the barbershop has lasted 15 minutes.  But it took us years to get here.



Comment Options

Anonymous

WOW

Youre a great dad...just wanted to let you know that. Fellow parent

Anonymous

my Michael

is exactly the sane way.I cut his hair now because people are ignorant of his situation. Takes me three days cutting little by little everyday.

Anonymous

This was our story too, our

This was our story too, our son is now 11 and when he was younger we would have to put him in almost a headlock and shave it quickly he has never had a "nice haircut" just a buzz cut. He can now sit still to get a cut but he wants it done quick no fancy stuff. I am hoping I can get him a trendyer cut before he starts middle school. Cross your fingers for me. :) 

Anonymous

me too, reminds of me of many

me too, reminds of me of many things we navigated for my precious Grandsons young lfe...stil hard and many comments from those who do not know... 

Anonymous

OMG I had the same horror show with Zen's first haircut at age 2

I remember it like it was yesterday and it was 13 years ago. I bawled right along with him as I restrained it. It was INDEED like restraining someone who was having surgery without anesthesia. I swore I would never take him back and started letting it grow and trimming it myself when it was absolutely necessary. Today Zen is almost 15 and shaving now (with some help).    

Anonymous

I didn't know that.....

I didn't know that other autistic kids had such issues with haircuts!  WOW, I SHOULD SHOW BEFORE AND AFTER VIDEOS OF MY KID! I am so glad we are past Barbershop nightmares! He has his newest barber who's name is Jose and he will not go in anyone else's chair who offers! He says- "NO THANKS, I'M WAITING FOR JOSE!" I showed his prior barbers a video of him staying still for his newest barber and their mouths dropped open as they laughed and said - "ARE U KIDDIN' ME?, THIS GUY STAYED STILL FOR THIS BARBER!?" Now, Josh still may jump out the chair once out of every 2 visits, shouting and pointing to the barber or crying because he said it hurt him, but the truth is, he just doesn't like to BE STILL, but I redirect him back in his chair, tell hime to calm down and that if he wants his pizza reward, he will be still and get his line-up! And he does!Joshua is now 7, and got his first haircut a little before 2 yrs. old.. 

Anonymous

Haircuts

I love this article.  My son is 15, diagnosed with Aspergers, and we have of course went through the same scenario.  We used RDI to get through most of his large hurdles (swimming, bike riding, haircuts, new foods, etc...)  and he is a completely different child now, confident in so many ways.  What struck me about the article is how others in the shop made commentary about him being spoiled.  I received these great cards from our local Regional Center which I once presented to a woman who said the same to my son while having a meltdown when he was very young. It read something like  "My son is living with Autism and often finds it difficult to control his emotions in overstimulating environments. I am so sorry if we disturbed you."  I remember the look of shame on her face when we walked away. The more articles published on what our kids must endure every day will hopefully educate the public beyond ridiculing them.  I also have a son living with epilepsy, and am finding that many kids have both autism and epilepsy combined.  Interesting that I have one of each.  He follows the Modified Atkins Diet for Seizures which has worked really well for him, and I blog about his journey at modifiedmom.wordpress.com.   Hope you will visit the site!

Anonymous

You could have been writing

You could have been writing this about my family. My son is now 22, and he lets me "buzz" his head with the hair clipper. My husband and I always remind ourselves how lucky we are and how far our son has come.

Anonymous

Thank you for the article

Well, I´m the father and stylist of an 8 years old boy. Never thought to carry him to a barber shop. But, I really think it is important to step forward whith that, so I will red carefully the tips and try to find a place where they could have patience enough. Thank you.

Anonymous

Haircut

That so reminds me of my son! We actually were asked to leave a salon when he was little because he kicked up such a fuss! Thank goodness we found Dania, from the Haircut Place in Greenwich. She has been cutting my son's hair for years! She is soooo patient and kind! We have to travel a little to get there, but it is worth not having to stress my son, and ourselves!

Anonymous

Haircut

We had the same situation. My son is now 15 but the thought of haircuts from age 2 until just recently were a nightmare. We would talk about it for days prior to actually going so we would all be prepared. I asked him why he didn't like haircuts and found out it wasn't the actual cut but the sound of the spray bottle wetting his hair. Now before we go we wash his hair at home then all they have to do is cut it with the scissors. My son was born with a head full of curls so haircuts were definitely an issue. Thanks for sharing!

Anonymous

Your story really touched me…

Your story really touched me… I’m a single father with an Autistic son with very limited speech and somewhat a loner. 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. This was back in the late 90’s when hardly anyone understood or even knew what Autism was.  Going to birthday parties or some family events, I could see the faces that some of my family and friends would make when they saw us coming, making expressions like “oh no, not them…” Even taking him to the supermarket had to be an in & out thing, and going out to eat at a restaurant, at times was out of the question however, I never gave up on him. I would still take him everywhere with me with the understanding that we just might have to leave a little earlier if things don’t work out.  I never cared what people thought. Those were very trying times.  My son is now 16 yrs old, very well mannered, respectful and I can see in his eyes that he tries so hard and I know he does this not just for him, but for me too.  He still has his days, but not often.  My community has gotten to know my son and with the help Autism Awareness he is a pretty popular kid. He is a very loving young man and the last thing he wants to do is let me down.  Now when we go out places, everyone surrounds him and wants to interact with him. What a turn around. I never gave up on him, but at the same time, he never gave up on me.

Anonymous

Thanks for sharing!  I love

Thanks for sharing!  I love hope!  Our 6 1/2 year old would not tolerate haircuts today if it were not for his wonderful therapist Jessica - she went through a similar process - getting him acclimated.  We look forward to a bright future for our little guy! 

Anonymous

Oh my gosh does this sound

Oh my gosh does this sound familiar!!! My son did the same thing. It would take 4 of us to hold him. Luckily we found a barber who did it. No one else would go it. The barber said"I used to have to castrate pigs, so this doesn't bother me. And of course there'd always be some jerk saying he needs his butt beat or something. When I got remarried, my husband took him and eventually everything turned out great. I'm so grateful for the barber and my husband. And we always paid the barber double. My Zach is 16 also.

Anonymous

We had the exact same

We had the exact same experience with my now 20 year old son. Big tips and tons of gratitude to the barbers/hair dressers who showed us compassion during those years (there were only a few)! 

Anonymous

Don't Stop Believin'

Beautifully written! I was right there with you. Your posting is inspirational. Great title!Ruth 

Anonymous

As always...well done Liane. 

As always...well done Liane.  We are all proud of you, Mickey.  And the whole wonderful family! 

Anonymous

great article - beautifully written

Thanks for your article.  That was some lovely writing.  Our 7yr old boy has autism and we used to have the same battle to cut his hair.  Our fluke was one day when I had a talk to him about what he didn't like and he said that the noise of the clippers hurt his hair - not his ears - his hair.  I was able to then reason with him about that (he is a smart cookie) and then we went through the usual bribery, begging etc. for a while with some success.The key for us was the day that I got out my iPod and put a Sesame Street podcast on for him.  He went from being the kid who would kick, scream and vomit during a haircut to being the kid who would tolerate the haircut.  Still not his favourite activity, but tolerated - just.We have taken him to the hairdresser a couple of times and they are generally really good.  Some of them now have portable DVD players etc. and that helps a lot as well.:-)

It will happen.

It will happen. Truly. I used to worry when my son was much younger that the “window of opportunity” everyone talked about slammed shut at a certain point, but I haven’t found that to be the case. Mickey just turned 20 this week, and he is still growing and changing. 

Thanks, Glen

Thanks, Glen. Coming from you, that is high praise indeed! [Glen Finland is the author of the terrific memoir "Next Stop." See our Link of the Week.]

Haircuts

Thank you for commenting. Yes, the sound of clippers bothered my son too at one time. I think he also couldn't tolerate the light touch of hair falling on his face and neck, the slippery feel of the cape, the smell of hair chemicals, the radio, the too bright fluorescent lighting, and probably other things I wasn't even aware of.  There are so many sensory challenges in "simply" getting a haircut.  

We had that issue

Abbe, we had that issue with nail cutting too. Success -- whenever it comes -- is cause to celebrate. Thank you for commenting.

Anonymous

Laughing & crying when I read

Laughing & crying when I read this.  What a wonderful piece...

Anonymous

I am in tears reading this. I

I am in tears reading this. I needed a ray of hope today, and this was it. Thank you. (I think my son starts looking rather like an ape with his super thick straight hair.) 

Anonymous

Thank You Liane

Beautifully told with love and a sense of humor. Rita

Anonymous

Beautiful.

Beautiful.

Anonymous

I can TOTALLY relate!

This was a great article! We had similar experiences with our son; he just started tolerating haircuts about 1 year ago, and he's been getting haircuts since he was 4 months old! Jacob was born with a HUGE head of hair, and never lost any of it. I guess the tantrums started when he was around 2 years old. BIG nightmare each time! He needed haircuts every 2 months, and he is turning 9 next month...I still am amazed each time he gets a haircut now and will wear the cape and sit in the chair, alone, instead of no cape and us having to hold him down and try to entertain (distract) him at the same time, while we were covered in hair, tears and, of course, snot.We also had to cut his nails in his sleep for many years. I cut, while my husband held the flashlight...that was the only way to cut his nails. Now he sits for that too. The simple things we can appreciate in life!Congrats on the column, and I will be reading whenever you have a posting.Abbe

Anonymous

Excellent piece. Thank you,

Excellent piece. Thank you, Liane.

Anonymous

of course there is a huge

of course there is a huge difference between 4 and 15,, even in neurotypical people

Anonymous

hair cuts

Congrats! I completely get it. Everyone should be proud indeed. 

Anonymous

Reminiscent

Oh Liane, this is such a trip down memory lane. I remember that our son Paul 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, Marcus the hair guy or Paul the autistic child.Great piece!

Anonymous

Oh, what a terrific piece,

Oh, what a terrific piece, Liane!  Thanks so much for sharing.  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.  Thank you.  :)Judy

Anonymous

Another great piece

Another great piece Liane!
Meryl

Anonymous

Wonderful and moving piece

Wonderful and moving piece Liane.

Anonymous

Inspiring. Thank you.

Inspiring. Thank you.

Anonymous

Bravo!

Way to go Liane!

Anonymous

This piece brought tears to

This piece brought tears to my eyes, because we went through such similar experiences with our own son. We would all be in such emotional turmoil gearing up for a hair cut, that we hated getting them done. Crying is not even in the right hemisphere for the emotional outporing and trauma my son went through during every hair cut. We finally found a kid friendly salon that were patient and kind and allowed him to watch TV during the experience and had toys and such to play with that helped us transition out of the nightmare. Now, our son, Sam (he's 10) gets excited about getting his hair cut and will tell them exactly what length he wants. Thank you so much for sharing.

Anonymous

A learning experience

A totally entertaining article.  But, not only is it entertaining but it simply tells parents how to handle a situation that is both scarey for the parents and the child in a simple common sense style.

Anonymous

An important and touching story

Liane, This story is a beautiful reminder that parenting is as much process as anything else.  You never gave up and you never stopped trying.  This is one of those moments that you have turned the ordinary into the sacred.  Well done! Amelia 

Anonymous

Haircut

I have an Autistic son who will not tolerate electric clippers, I use sissors instead.I believe the sound of the clippers is what bothers him.

Anonymous

Totally heartwarming!

Totally heartwarming!

Anonymous

Liane,Beautifully written

Liane,Beautifully written with a killer last line.  Congrats on your new gig!All Best,Glen 

Anonymous

haircuts

beautifully written.  I felt like I was there with you & Mickey. and yes, Mickey we are proud. I have learned with my own children not to tkae things for granted & to celebrate successes. Felicia

Anonymous

I can relate

We have similar issues, though cutting fingernails is much worse than haircuts right now. I do hope time, maturity and hard work pay off. Love to hear these stories.

Anonymous

Beautifully expressed.  I

Beautifully expressed.  I felt like i was there with you & Mickey. And yes, Mickey, we are proud of you.  With our own children we have learned not  to take things for granted. 

Anonymous

autism

What a wonderful article!  A glimpse into the world of autism that not many people see and the long road travelled by children and their parents to do the simplest things in life we take for granted. Beverly

Anonymous

i remembef doing the same

i remembef doing the same thing.isnt it amazing how se have been forced into acknowledging and celebrating the ordinady.its actually a gift.  

Anonymous

Wonderful piece!

And I am proud of all of you, especially Mickey! A "man of the world," indeed! Good job, Mama!www.phyllisschieberauthor.com

Anonymous

I'm proud as well.... of all

I'm proud as well.... of all you, especially of Mickey! Well done, Liane!

Anonymous

A wonderful piece!Lisa

A wonderful piece!Lisa