Tooele Transcript Bulletin – News in Tooele, Utah

June 29, 2017
Have special-needs challenges with hair care? Try these tips

In the late 1980s, people with disabilities were being seen more and more in mainstream media and society. My husband, Rod, and I, vowed we would never keep Heidi (our sweet little daughter with Down syndrome) shielded at home like families often did in the past.

Heidi’s sisters were proud of her, too, despite frequent rude stares from others. One thing I always did to bolster our confidence before going out was to make sure the girls’ faces were clean and their hair brushed, with a bow, barrette or headband added — including little Heidi. Her munchkin-angel face looked even cuter with curls, ribbons and bows.

Fast forward a few years. Heidi’s late-onset autism (unbeknownst to us) created an extreme sensitivity with anything around her face, such as lip balm, sunscreen, eyeglasses, and all hair accessories. First, her annoyance was baffling, then frustrating, then down-right aggravating. Heidi detested anything in her hair, and seemed oblivious to pain when she pulled out a barrette, curler, or ribbon. It drove me crazy.

We finally had to accept who Heidi was, unkempt hair and all. I was grateful I’d attended cosmetology college earlier and knew what to do. I resigned to fairly short hair for Heidi. It was bittersweet. We all learned to adapt to her complex idiosyncrasies. Heidi would eventually be dual-diagnosed Down syndrome with autism at age 13. Frankly, it was a true-life adventure.

Today, our four girls are grown, and amaze my husband and me, and now, I’m a hair-cuttin’ grandma! I love sharing hair tips with families affected by special needs, so if the busy barbershops or smelly salons are too stressful, you can do it at home.

How? Keep it UP!

Buy up: Hair cutting scissors are slightly different than paper or fabric scissors, and I recommend buying shears with shorter blades, around 2-inches long. They’re easier to maneuver around the ears, etc., and help avoid eye injury. For the short cuts for boys, get a good quality clipper (and the clip-on guides) as you can.

Plug up: Some electric hair trimmers have a loud motor, especially near the ears, and may be too noisy for individuals with hypersensitivities. Some families modify this with a set of ear plugs during haircuts. (If “buzzers” are too much, you may need to resort to scissors and a comb like great grandma did.)

Watch up: It helps to watch online demonstrations of kids’ haircuts, or you may just write notes of barbers and beauticians. Choose simple styles. Remember, hair always grows back, and you’ll get better with practice.

Speak up: Mentioning our grooming plans to Heidi beforehand, lessened her difficulty transitioning to the haircut, and helped her comply. However, I also rewarded her by doing our project while she watched a favorite video movie.

Stick up: Some families schedule haircuts on grooming charts, and use stickers or other rewards. The more regular a caregiver does unpleasant tasks, the child generally adapts, so please don’t avoid this challenge. Haircuts are quite energizing — even liberating, we’ve found.

Wash up: Heidi has anxiety, so I planned it when there was time and flexibility. The best time for her haircuts was after a nice, hot bath with a handful of calming Epsom salts added. Some parents cut hair first, then have the child/teen go bathe/shower, but you can experiment.

Pair up: Sometimes the convenient “shampoo with conditioner” blends didn’t always work for Heidi’s “rat’s nest” in the back. Spray-on hair detanglers helped that.

Set up: Before Heidi’s haircut, I would spread out a large beach towel or old sheet on the carpet where she’d sit to watch her movie, and it caught most of the hair.

Pass up: Heidi hated the plastic haircutting cape or towel around her neck, so I just skipped it, knowing I’d simply launder whatever she was wearing. (We survived.)

Heads up: During haircuts, some people with hypersensitivity may impulsivity shake their head, bend over, or swat your hand away, etc. This can be tricky near scissors, so be acutely aware. Speak soothingly, positively, and realize you may need breaks during the process.

Trim up: Families with special-needs are busy, and haircuts take time and patience. Sometimes trimming just the bangs will get you by, so that’s an option.

Gear up: There are dry shampoo sprays with powder and chemicals to absorb excess body oils for in-between washings. I avoided them, and any aerosol that allowed harsh chemicals access to Heidi’s lungs, eyes, sinuses, etc. There are waterless shampoos available, formulated for patients who are bedridden.

Read up: Coconut oil is an economical, chemical-free hair dressing, especially good for dry hair. “The Coconut Miracle” by Dr. Bruce Fife encourages cooking with coconut oil to naturally help your family have healthier, more manageable hair, clearer skin, plus more health benefits.

Put up: Always put away the sharp scissors, electric clippers and small hair clips to avoid injury, damaged furniture, or choking hazards. Treat them with care and they’ll serve you well.

Good luck, and remember your own hair, too!

Elayne Pearson, C.A.S., is an author, mentor, national speaker, and Special-needs Preparedness Specialist. Email: or

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