Hair Part 1

Hair can be challenging for individuals with autism. Whether we are talking about cutting, combing, styling, or washing, hair issues can put the most patient person on edge. In Part 1 of this discussion, we will look at some of the reactions to hair care and some of the causes of those reactions.

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Why do some individuals with autism steadfastly resist getting their hair cut or washed? Why do gentle attempts to comb or style hair can turn into battles? Although children of all stripes resist taking care of their hair, reactions tend to be more extreme when autism is added to the mix.

Sometimes resistance involves pulling back, pushing hands away, or protesting mildly, but, for some individuals with autism express their opposition to cutting or washing or styling hair through bloodcurdling screams, hitting, kicking, spitting, or biting, On the other end of the spectrum, mention of washing hair or getting a hair cut may result in a person hiding in their room or attempting to run away.

What causes these reactions? Parents are often blamed for explosive behaviors or inappropriate grooming. I hear comments from otherwise reasonable people condemning parents, saying they are spoiling their kids or giving in to a demanding child. Oh…if only it were that easy!

Over the past 35 years or so, I’ve known dozens and dozens of kids, teens, and adults with autism who had a strong aversion to anyone touching their hair. My observations lead me to believe that the following issues cause rather extreme reactions to hair styling, washing, or cutting.
+ Extraordinary sensory issues. Extreme sensitivity to touch, smells, or sounds stand in the way of hair care. I was reminded of this problem when I was attempting to comb the hair of an older relative diagnosed with Parkinson’s who had developed shingles in his scalp. He is a tolerant, tough guy who never whines. But he simply could not tolerate my combing his hair or cutting it. His reaction was similar to that of many friends with autism over the years.
+ Changes in routine. Because hair cuts are usually announced out of the blue, some of our friends who thrive on regular, predictable routine may balk when suddenly confronted with an unexpected activity. The same is true of hair washing at random times during the week.
+ New environment. The sights, sounds, smells, and atmosphere of a hair salon or barber shop can simply overwhelm a person with autism. For example, a person encounters dozens of unidentifiable smells by simply walking in the door. The noise of hair clippers, hair dryers, and people chattering can hit a person in the face. I’ve rarely been in a hair salon that has a quiet, calming atmosphere.
+ Too much water. Although some of my friends with autism love water and showers and swimming, others are really averse to water on their heads and running their faces. It is challenging to wash hair without getting a person’s head wet.

TIP FOR THE DAY. Unfortunately, individuals with autism cannot avoid washing, cutting, or styling their hair indefinitely. In Hair Part 2, we will look at some ways to overcome some of these challenging issues.

NOTE TO READERS AND LISTENERS: I am Cathy Knoll, a board certified music therapist and long-time friend of many folks with autism. At we are committed to providing free, practical, everyday tips for making life better for people with autism. Feel free to send me a confidential email at with your thoughts or challenging situations or innovative solution. And don’t forget to check out our website for a wealth of ideas and a glimpse into the world of autism.

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