Section Heading Background Image

Resources

For people with Down syndrome, family members, caregivers and professionals.

Tips for a Sensory-Friendly Haircut

June 2022 | Monica Prindiville, OTS and Katie Frank, PhD, OTR/L - Occupational Therapy Student and Occupational Therapist

While many find a trip to the salon or barbershop relaxing and look forward to their new look, getting a haircut can be an uncomfortable and even frightening experience for those with sensory processing differences. Many people with Down syndrome experience differences in sensory processing, meaning that they organize and interpret sensory input (like sound and touch) from their environments differently. Everyday sensory experiences that most of us are not bothered by or may not even notice can be under- or over-stimulating for them, which can lead to significant discomfort and even distress. For more on sensory processing in individuals with Down syndrome, please see this resource.

For people with sensitivities to auditory (sound) and tactile (touch) sensory input, getting a haircut can be one of these everyday experiences that are difficult. From the roar of the blow dryer and the buzzing of the clippers to the feeling of hair falling on your neck and the clippers vibrating on your skin, getting a haircut is an experience packed with sensory input. This can be overwhelming and uncomfortable for those who are sensitive to these types of sensory input. Fortunately, there are steps you can take before and during the haircut to make the experience more comfortable for your loved one.

BEFORE THE HAIRCUT

Visit the salon in advance.

  • If possible, visit the salon prior to the day of the haircut. If another family member needs a haircut, bringing your loved one along to watch may make the experience less intimidating when it is time for their own appointment.

  • If no one else needs a haircut, going in and meeting the stylist and encouraging your loved one to ask any questions or express any concerns they have can make the day of the haircut less scary.

  • Visiting the salon ahead of time is also an opportunity to screen for a stylist who is a good fit for your loved one. Don’t be afraid to discuss your loved one’s specific needs and preferences with the stylist and ask what supports or accommodations they may be able to provide to make the experience more comfortable. 

Consider the time of the appointment.

  • Ask what time is the quietest and least busy at the salon/barbershop and consider making your loved one's appointment for this time. This will decrease the amount of visual and auditory stimuli in the environment during the appointment.

  • Consider the ideal appointment time for your loved one's mood and energy patterns. Is there a time of day when they are typically calmest or more open to novel or challenging experiences?

  • Consider scheduling haircuts in regular intervals and put them on a calendar. This will allow your loved one to anticipate when the haircuts will happen and may reduce anxiety for those who prefer routine. 

Talk about what to expect.

  • Use a social story about getting a haircut to help your loved one know what to expect. See this link The preceding link opens in a new tab or window. for an example or make your own. You can also find videos of haircuts online. 

  • Practice at home using whatever hair tools you have. You can help your loved one practice wearing a cape (a towel or cloth can be used), listening to and feeling the blow dryer and clippers (an electric toothbrush, razor, or handheld massager can stimulate the vibration and sound), and having their hair touched and combed in a comfortable and safe environment. 

    • Check out these apps for a clipper simulator: Android The preceding link opens in a new tab or window. and Apple The preceding link opens in a new tab or window.. This can be a way to familiarize your loved one with the tools the stylist will use and make them seem silly and fun rather than scary. 

  • Schedule a preferred or enjoyable activity after the haircut. You can use a "First, Then" The preceding link opens in a new tab or window. visual to remind your loved one of this plan. For example, "First haircut, then go swing at the park." 

Do the haircut at home.

  • If you are planning to cut your loved one’s hair at home, consider trying these sensory-friendly quiet clippers The preceding link opens in a new tab or window.. You can also ask your stylist if you can bring your own clippers if this would be helpful for your loved one. 

  • If you believe being in the comfort of their own home would make the haircut go more smoothly for your loved one but aren’t necessarily ready to pick up the clippers yourself, it may be worth exploring options for a mobile hairdresser in your area.

DURING THE HAIRCUT

Work with the stylist.

  • Arrive a few minutes before the appointment to give your loved one an opportunity to explore the environment and observe others getting haircuts.

  • Discuss your loved one's sensory needs and preferences with your stylist at the beginning of the appointment. For example, you can ask the stylist to explain each step they take and to ask before touching your loved one during the haircut. 

  • Ask the stylist if your loved one can look at, touch, and listen to their tools before they get started. 

  • Ask the stylist how long the appointment will take and set a timer that your loved one can see during the appointment. Providing verbal reminders of how much time is left (e.g., "10 more minutes") or using a visual timer can also be helpful. 

    • Apple and Android have several free apps that provide a visual representation of the time remaining for an activity. This can make it easier to conceptualize time. 

Consider your loved one's sensory needs and preferences.

  • Distractions, distractions! Let your loved one choose a game, TV show, or music video on a tablet or phone or a favorite book to shift attention away from unpleasant sensory stimuli.

  • Offer choices throughout the experience (such as what activity to do to keep them occupied during the appointment or what song to play). This can enable them to feel more in control of the experience.

  • Bring a preferred item such as a fidget or toy to provide comfort and distraction during the experience.

  • If your loved one is sensitive to certain scents, you can bring your own fragrance-free or preferred shampoos, conditioners, and other hair products.

  • If certain steps of the visit are particularly difficult for your loved one or do not meet their sensory needs, feel free to ask the stylist to omit them.

    • If your loved one is sensitive to the sound or feeling of the blow dryer, ask the stylist to leave it wet to air dry.

    • If your loved one is sensitive to touch, ask the stylist to omit the scalp massage during washing.

    • If washing hair at the salon is difficult for your loved one, they can complete their normal hair washing routine at home before the appointment. Stylists can use spray bottles to rewet their hair as needed.

    • If your loved one is unable to tolerate the buzzing of the clippers, ask if the stylist can use scissors exclusively. 

    • If wearing a cape is uncomfortable, choose not to wear it. Consider bringing a change of clothes in case the snippets of hair on their clothing are bothersome. Using a towel instead of a cape or fastening the cape loosely are additional options. 

  • Bring earplugs if your loved one is sensitive to noise. Playing music or a video with sound can also provide distraction from the auditory stimuli of the haircut.

  • Use a shower visor hat during the haircut to keep sprays/hair products and hair shreds off their face, neck, and eyes. These can make the experience much easier for those who do not like the feeling of hair falling on their skin. These can also be used during hair washing if needed.

Use calming strategies.

  • If you have already determined certain types of sensory input to be calming for your loved one, consider incorporating them into the haircut itself or using them before the haircut.

    • For example, if your loved one likes using handheld massagers or sitting under a weighted blanket, try bringing these to use during the haircut.

    • Proprioceptive input prior to the appointment may also be helpful. 

    • An occupational therapist can help determine which types of sensory input would be most beneficial for your loved one based on their sensory needs and preferences.

  • Encourage your loved one to utilize other strategies that have proven effective. For example, deep breathing and/or progressive muscle relaxation may help. Additional examples of calming strategies can be found in this resource.

Anticipate future haircuts.

  • Consider taking pictures or filming parts of the experience so that you can use them to create a social story for your loved one for future use. When it is time for the next haircut, these can serve as a reminder that they have been through the steps of a haircut before and that everything was OK.

Please note: The information on this site is for educational purposes only and is not intended to serve as a substitute for a medical, psychiatric, mental health, or behavioral evaluation, diagnosis, or treatment plan by a qualified professional. We recommend you review the educational material with your health providers regarding the specifics of your health care needs.

Close