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An Autistic Boy Gets a Hair Cut

Rosanne Ullman | April 19, 2017 | 8:46 AM
Caroline Mustoe (right) and her prize client after his haircut.

In the short year since he’d started intensive services to address his diagnosis of mild autism, three-and-a-half-year-old Ari had come a long way, quickly building his handful of words into an above-average vocabulary and tackling other autism-related concerns.

But he retained sensory issues, particularly around his head, and Ari’s trips to the barbershop or salon continued to be generally miserable experiences for all involved. Typically, he’d cry and thrash around, sometimes putting himself in danger of getting hurt. The final straw was a visit that required his dad to restrain him while he screamed; the hair cut grew so out of control that the only way to make it even was to shave his entire head.

“We decided we couldn’t do that to our little boy anymore,” recalls his mom, who then bought some specialized clippers and tried doing his hair herself. Although he did not get as upset during the haircuts his mom gave him, the process still provoked anxiety, plus the result looked like an amateur job. Determined to find a better solution in her town of Lexington, Massachusetts, his mom discovered a “mobile hairdresser” on the mom-to-mom website pepperlane.co.

The stylist, Caroline Mustoe, had relocated to Lexington a decade earlier from England, where the mobile hairdresser concept was more common. Her family settled in the Boston area when her husband Robbie Mustoe, now a soccer analyst with NBC Sports, took a coaching job with Boston College. Soon the word spread that she was a home-visit hairdresser, and she found that American families were warming up to that idea.

“Home hairdressing is great for families,” Mustoe says. “Parents are so busy! One child can be watching TV or having lunch while the other child is getting a haircut. I work around people’s schedules, and often a Sunday or an evening is best.” The routine is a good fit for Mustoe as well.

“I enjoy the social side of hairdressing,” she explains. “You get that in a salon, too, but in a more structured way, with clients coming in every 45 minutes. My schedule is flexible—I can book two hours at a home if I need that for a client. I don’t have a salon chair to pump up and down, so sometimes I’m on my knees or crawling on the floor to get to a child’s hair, but I’m used to it! I get a lot of satisfaction from my career this way.”

Even with her family specialty, Mustoe told Ari’s mom that he would be her first autistic client. They decided that her first visit would be just to meet Ari, no cutting.

“I played a little with him, and then I introduced the combs,” Mustoe says. “I showed him the spray bottle, and his mom was surprised that he permitted me to wet his hair and comb it. But once I got out the scissors, he wasn’t comfortable, so we stopped.”

Within a few weeks Mustoe returned to attempt a real haircut, with his family and his autism therapists on hand to help. First, Ari watched as Mustoe cut his dad’s hair. Then his therapists applied autism-therapy strategies to negotiate with Ari: he would agree to a set number of “snips” in order to be allowed to have something he wanted, such as a snack, a toy, watching a video or getting a little vegetable tattoo.

“I took my lead from the aides about how to approach him, when to start combing his hair and at what point to introduce scissors,” Mustoe reports. “We did the snips a few times, and I managed to cut the perimeter.” That was about it, but at least Ari was on his way. And the third time was the charm!

“When I came back a third time, I wasn’t sure how well it would go, but in my mind I thought I could achieve it,” Mustoe says. In the interim, Ari’s parents had read storybooks to him about children getting haircuts and prepared Ari for Mustoe’s arrival on the appointed day.

“We went right to work when I arrived,” Mustoe remembers. “He didn’t have time for anxiety to build! As I cut his hair, he watched a video and sang along with it. He was comfortable, not afraid. A couple of times he said, ‘No more scissors,’ but he let me continue when I replied, ‘Oh just a couple more snips.’” Ari started out on a chair but, as the haircut progressed, he switched to his mom’s lap. But there was no crying or thrashing, and Ari finally had a full, proper little boy’s haircut.

“Caroline was so nice, and I think it helped to have the consistency of the same person for the three visits,” says his mom, who plans to continue having Mustoe come to the house about every eight weeks. “We were all so proud of him!”

No one was happier about the outcome than his stylist.

“When I left their house that day, I could have burst into tears!” Mustoe says. “I was so excited for Ari, and he gave me the biggest grin when I left. It’s such a lovely feeling for me to have achieved his haircut! I was determined to keep coming no matter how long it would take, but it happened that third time. He is such a ray of sunshine. Afterward, I emailed his mom about how excited I was to come away after cutting his hair.”

April is National Autism Awareness Month, so the timing was excellent!

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