He hollers nonsense phrases and shakes his head. A lollipop gets him into your stylist's chair but he won't let you snap an apron around his neck. His well-meaning sister flutters about the chair, tangling chords to tickle his knees. "Show him a video on your phone," she says, a cheerful reminder of a popular distraction.
Autism's characteristics are as unique to the individual as snowflakes differ one to another. One person may not mind a razor humming near his head but dislikes shiny scissor reflections. Another is okay with scissors but hates sprayed water. Some, like Wonder Boy, have a special need for transition - to be prepared for what comes next.
In this moment, however, you're most concerned about safely wielding sharp objects near the head and face of a moving target than picking up a lesson in autism. How can you gain control of the situation?
Here are five tips for enjoying a successful interaction with our child with autism:
Get to eye level. Hands at your side. Seek eye contact, but don't demand it.
Hold your body still. Smile. Put all of your attention on him. It may not look like it, but he's focused on you, decoding you, deciding about you. Let him take you in.
Does he seem more nervous about you or the equipment? Follow his caregiver's lead.
3. DO NOT TOUCH.
Do not reach for his hand. Do not touch his hair (yet). Do not try to hug him or pick him up.
Do let him touch you: hold out your hand, palm up. High five!
3. DON'T CHATTER.
Keep conversation pertinent and to a minimum. Say, "this is the razor" and "it will tickle" and "it hums" or "it will buzz near your ears."
Don't ask questions, like, "how do you like school?" or "how old are you?" or "What's your favorite (fill-in-the-blank)? He's absorbed by the movement of people around him, mirrored reflections. He hears water spraying in sinks, radio static, clattering shoes, humming razors. He smells hairspray, mousse, perspiration. He's aware of his sister and distracted by your fingers on him. The expectation of a response adds to his overflowing sensory workload.
Let him touch the shiny scissors, gripped firmly in your hand. Hold the razor where he can see it. Turn it on and wait for him to absorb the sound it makes. Let him touch it, safely, if he wants to. Turn on the blow dryer; let him touch the moving air. Show him how the spray bottle works. Say, "This is water."
5. BE CONFIDENT.
Once you've received the go ahead, begin! He's here for a haircut! Your anxiety and hesitation feed his anxiety and hesitation. The more calm, confident and efficient you are, the better the experience will be for everyone.
ONE MORE THING.
When necks and clothes are dusted and our child with autism has sped off, lollipop reward in hand…please won't you acknowledge his helpful, patient, kind, forever-upbeat sister-of-autism?