Raising North Dakota: Getting through a haircut with sensory overload

Local News

Going to the salon or barber for a haircut is something many of us look forward to. It’s an opportunity to relax, enjoy a scalp massage and feel renewed.

For some, however, just the thought of a haircut can cause undue stress.

From the moment you step into a salon or barbershop, you hear blow dryers whirring, clippers buzzing and scissors snipping hair — and while this may not sound like a big deal to you, it can be sensory overload for others.

“Sometimes when getting a haircut, this information is not processed correctly, therefore you see some sensory defensiveness,” said Brianna Mittelsteadt, M/OTR/L at Red Door Pediatric Therapy.

This is often considered a sensory processing disorder.

Mittelsteadt works with many kids who experience an array of sensory difficulties.

She says when it comes to haircuts, three senses are utilized — touch, sound and smell — which means haircuts are often not a pleasant experience for a child with a sensory processing disorder.

That is the case for Harlan Stewart’s 6-year-old son, Theodore.

“He’s very heightened on all of his emotions coming into it and going through it. From the time he was very young, haircuts have been a very difficult process, finding someone with the talent and the patience to be able to go about a haircut for a child like him was tough to do,” Stewart explained.

After years of trying different barbers and cosmetologists, they were referred to Samantha Kessel at Sharp Men’s Salon in Bismarck.

While the process is still not easy by any stretch of the imagination, it has certainly improved since they started working with Sam, whose son has autism.

“I know the anxiety of being a parent of a child who acts out, the disability, part of the sensory processing disorder. It gives me more patience with those kids because I know that’s all they need. I want other parents to be comfortable and not have that anxiety about haircuts,” Kessel said.

Combine Sam’s experience, patience and knowledge with the tools Theodore is learning in therapy, each haircut experience has improved little by little.

“He attends therapy before he comes to get his hair cut,” Harlan explained. “They work on some desensitization techniques during his therapy session.”

Some of those techniques include prepping with a story to review expectations, a deep head massage or practice with a massager against the scalp to simulate what the clippers might feel like. And one of the best tools?

“Bribery is key,” Mittelsteadt said. “Providing an iPad or their favorite cartoon or favorite toy or a sucker or a snack, those are great tools to utilize. We always want to make the experience positive so yes, sometimes it’s a very slow process. It could be numerous haircuts before it goes at all positive. But we just want to decrease the anxiety prior to and during the haircut, that’s our goal.”

And whether it’s bribery or repetition, Stewart says you just keep on trying, because, in the end, it’s all worth it.

“When he gets done and he looks in the mirror and he’s so proud of his haircut and how he looks,” said Harlan.

“Look at me! Look at you?!” Theodore said.
“Oh my goodness, that looks great!” Harlan replied.

Mittelsteadt has a number of tips and tricks to help your sensory-sensitive child through a haircut or any situation that may be overwhelming for the senses.

Click here for a link to her blog.

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