It is often said that if you know one person with autism, well, then you know one person with autism. That is to say, the autism experience has common elements, but no two persons’ autism is exactly the same.
Ryan is towards the mild end of the spectrum. He has language. He is progressing well in mainstream school. He has interests that we can share. He also has social challenges. He has anxiety, occasionally to an extreme degree. He gets locked into repetitive behaviors, sometimes even when they bring him frustration and not enjoyment. Focus and attention can be an issue.
On the sensory side, he has a strong aversion to certain smells. He often skips lunch at school if the odors of the day’s cafeteria menu does not agree with him. He seeks sensory input from the world around him. He can be fidgety, and he can resist when you try to touch him near his face.
Ryan’s challenges can make simple outings difficult. We have learned to prepare him, learned to have backup plans, learned to pack the items we need to mitigate them, learned to have an exit strategy. Among the “routine” outings that have never come easily: haircuts.
Haircuts require sitting still. They require tolerance of certain noises near one’s ears. They require touching near the face. None of which are easy for Ryan.
We used to cut his hair at home, but struggled to keep him still enough to do a decent job. Sometimes we just let his hair grow instead of facing more frequent attempts to cut it.
Five or six years ago, we found a place that works. It’s a children’s barber shop, full of theme chairs, video game consoles, and DVD players. We found a barber — a male barber (something that was, and is, important to Ryan) — whom Ryan liked.
Joe the barber is patient and kind. He didn’t bat an eye when I explained Ryan’s sensory resistance to haircuts. He understood why we brought a clean shirt for Ryan to change into after the job was done. He paused often to blow the loose hair away from Ryan’s face and neck. He never got impatient when Ryan couldn’t follow his commands, turning his head away from the noise of the clippers. He tried to engage Ryan in conversation. And he did an excellent job cutting Ryan’s mop-like hair.
Ryan has long since outgrown the theme chairs, but Joe is still the only person who cuts his hair. Ryan now sits on the other side of the room in one of the adult chairs. He doesn’t watch DVDs or play video games (only because they don’t have NHL2K). The occasional cry from an infant getting a first haircut bothers him, but not much. He has gotten better at tolerating the clippers and holding his head where Joe wants him to.
Finding Joe turned a difficult situation into a simple one. I used to approach haircuts with dread. I packed Ryan’s spare t-shirt and prepared to stand by him, offer my support, and hope for the best.
Over the years, my anxiety has melted away. Ryan does just fine. He and Joe catch up about school, summer vacation, or Ryan’s weekend plans. Joe managed to perfectly navigate Ryan’s questions about his age when that was something Ryan asked everyone. He laughed when Ryan pointed out that he’s bald. I’m sure Joe has learned a few things about hockey.
I took Ryan for a haircut Saturday and I mostly stood checking my phone as Ryan told Joe about the street hockey playoffs. My intervention was not needed.
When we began our autism journey more than a decade ago, sometimes it felt like everything was difficult. We wondered when or if things would get easier. Life still has its difficult moments. We ache for our child when he struggles socially, or when anxiety grabs hold of him and won’t let to. We worry about him. We worry about the future.
But we’re in a better place. For our family, the path to autism understanding is paved with stones laid by people like Joe. At our first meeting, he listened as a worried parent tried to explain away all his child’s “different” behaviors. Joe nodded, gave me a reassuring look and set about his job. He quickly figured out Ryan’s sensitivities and worked around them, never showing the tiniest bit of exasperation. There was no judgement, no annoyance.
People like Joe matter. Autism awareness? Autism understanding? They get it. They have it to spare.
I am thankful for people like Joe, and it’s my sincere hope that he and those like him know just how much they matter, that the service and comfort they give is a Not Little Thing.
We have a lot of Joe the barbers. Teachers. Aides. Therapists. Hockey coaches. Neighbors. NHL executives. Each one, in their interactions with our family, makes a difference through tolerance, understanding, advocacy, acceptance, inclusion.
Together they help smooth the rough edges of our autism journey, and we are thankful for each one.