Not every child enjoys, but getting a haircut can be incredibly stressful for children who process sensory stimuli differently from others. Often associated with Autism, sensory processing issues can make some tasks feel very overwhelming to some children. A study published by the American Journal of Occupational Therapy entitled Evidence-Based Review of Interventions for Autism Used in or of Relevance to Occupational Therapy found that children who have Autism may demonstrate sensory responses that are considered unusual. This can include things over-response or under-response to stimuli like touch and sound.

What are sensory processing issues?

Many of us are familiar with the five senses, sight, hearing, touch, taste, and smell. Beyond that, we may not think about other senses that are also important but rarely talked about. For example, the sense of proprioception is the awareness a person has of their body parts, and the vestibular sense, which involves movement coordination and balance. Both of the aforementioned senses are important for helping us navigate the world and carry out day-to-day tasks; however, could you imagine if these senses weren’t functioning in a manner that you’re likely familiar with?

Sensory processing issues can often be categorized into one of two types, hypersensitivity and hyposensitivity. Hypersensitivity will likely lead to avoidant behaviors as the child will often be bothered by loud noises, bright lights, uncomfortable clothing, and physical contact. It is not unusual for a child with hypersensitivity to struggle with understanding their bodies’ position relative to objects. They might bump into things or fail to understand the amount of force they apply when performing tasks (like when writing or erasing, they may bear down too hard).

Hyposensitivity is almost the opposite of hypersensitivity in that it can lead children to seek out and crave sensory stimulation. For children with hyposensitivity, they may frequently touch people and objects and have difficulty understanding personal space. Children that fall into this category may also find it difficult to sit still. It is also not uncommon for these children to have a high tolerance to pain and difficulties predicting their strength.

One important note is that hyposensitivity and hypersensitivity traits can simultaneously manifest within the same child.

Treatments

Some therapies exist to help children get used to sensory stimuli. Treatments and therapy come in various forms and practices; some may try to get the child used to the stimuli they are having difficulties with by repeatedly exposing the child to it. Other forms may use scheduling to help a child meet their specific sensory needs. The method that is used will depend on the child. The therapy’s ultimate goal is to help the child cope better with stressful situations and not become overwhelmed by sensory stimuli.

So if a child struggles with sensory processing issues and needs a haircut, what do you do? First and foremost, the safety of you and the child is important. If there is a serious risk of accidentally harming the child or yourself, it’s advisable to seek counsel. Second, a comfortable and familiar environment will help keep the child calm. Soft music and dimming the lights can reduce stress and help the child stay calm. Lastly, you may not be able to get it all done at once. Sometimes only a partial hair cut will be the only thing manageable, and you’ll have to finish the rest another day.

Each child is different, and what makes one comfortable may not work on another. If your child has sensory perception issues, remember to be patient and learn as much as you can about them and what they are experiencing.

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