Things that go snip-snip in the night

31 May

I felt very weird last night, sneaking around my in my own house in the dark, hiding not one, but two pairs of scissors behind my back. I was dressed like a burglar: black shirt, black pants – both tight-fitting to avoid the tell-tale sound of rustling clothing.  In the interests of being as quiet as possible, I was in my stockinged feet.  I could not risk turning the lights on: I had to rely solely on the moonlight coming in through the open window.  I would have worn a balaclava, but since all I was doing was cutting my son’s hair, that probably would have been overkill.

Like most children with autism, George has sensory issues.  He cannot tolerate wearing shirts with collars. He will not eat something if he doesn’t know how it will feel in his mouth.  He stims by running around manically and jumping, jumping, jumping, to send as much deep pressure as possible through his body.  When he’s upset he tries to calm himself by banging his head (not something we allow, for obvious reasons).  He wore pull-ups for about a year after he was toilet-trained because he liked the way they felt.

And he wears a hat.  I suspect that the hat serves a dual purpose.  It creates a slight feeling of pressure around his head that gives him a sense of security, and it discourages people from touching his head.  Now, George doesn’t mind being touched.  He enjoys exchanging hugs with people he trusts, and he seeks the kind of games where you chase him, wrestle him to the floor, and tickle him.  He is always asking me or his Dad to scratch his back.  But he hates having his head touched.  His reaction to being touched on the head ranges from quiet but unmistakable discomfort (for light fleeting pats on the head) to out-and-out screaming, kicking panic (for hair-washing and haircuts).

I have a confession to make: I don’t brush my son’s hair.  I have so many other battles to contend with where his hair is concerned, and frankly, I don’t want him to start every day on such a negative note.  I know that the day will come when I will have to revise this policy, but for now my focus has to be on helping him overcome this issue he has. I cannot just go in with hairbrush a-blazin’ and expect him to be OK with it.  Fortunately, his hair has lost much of its toddlerhood curl and tendency to tangle, so he can get away with it not being brushed.  Besides, the ever-present hat tends to flatten the hair into submission.

However, George’s hair is still somewhat unruly.  The unruliness combined with the fact that I cannot give him proper deep, scalp-massaging hair-washes (hairwashing – a regular event that is fraught with trauma for the entire family) means that George’s hair has to be cut fairly frequently.  But since the sight of scissors coming anywhere near his head would send him into a state that he wouldn’t recover from for weeks, I have to cut his hair at night, when he is asleep.

Hence the dramatic sneaking-around-with-scissors behaviour.  When George goes to bed, I have to wait until he is in a deep sleep.  I have to make myself as invisible as possible, so he doesn’t hear, see or feel my presence.  I sneak silently up to his bed and reassure myself that yes, he is asleep, and that no, he probably won’t wake up anytime soon.  I swoop in – silently, of course – and cut whichever bits of hair I have easy access to.  Between cuts, the scissors are hidden.  I cannot take a chance on George waking up and seeing me there with scissors.  It sometimes takes up to a week to complete a haircut, because what I can do is completely dependant on how George is lying.  So the poor kid invariably spends a few days with his hair looking a bit patchy.

If the haircutting for the night has gone well, I don’t stop there.  I put down the haircutting scissors and pick up the second pair of scissors that I have brought along for the excursion.  I pick up one of George’s hands and experimentally run my finger along his nails.  If he stirs, I leave well enough alone – it is a sign that his sleep is not deep enough for me to proceed.  If he doesn’t react, I pick the longest nails and cut them – another task that George will not tolerate during his waking hours (I suspect that this stems from a babyhood incident in which I accidentally nicked one of his fingers).  Like the haircutting, it can take several days to cut George’s full set of fingernails.  Fortunately, I never have to bother with the toenails – George has the same brittle toenails that I do; they break off during regular day-to-day activity.

Someday all of George’s personal grooming tasks will be done during daylight hours, without any subterfuge on my part.  Getting there will take time, though.  It will require gentle desensitization, social stories, a regimen of reinforcements and rewards.  And lots of patience.

And love.  Never forget the love.

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