Developing Tolerance for Hair Brushing – Autism and Sensory Processing Disorder

Children with autism typically suffer from a condition known as sensory processing disorder. Many personal care activities like brushing their teeth and brushing their hair can be difficult to tolerate, which can cause a personal care deficit. Approaching this intolerance must be done on an individual basis and should be customized with the individual’s sensitivities in mind. 
For those who are sensitive to touch, the concept of hair brushing should be approached by someone with an understanding of the individual’s limitations, how they feel about sensations associated with having their hair brushed. With time, hair brushing can become a pleasant experience for everyone involved. 

Sensory Reasons for Hair Struggles:

  • Some kids are sensitive to having their head tilted backwards or forward for rinsing when having their hair washed. Your vestibular system controls your body’s sense of balance and motion.
  • Your child may be sensitive to the smell of the hair products you are using on them.
  • Many children with sensory issues have very sensitive scalps or are sensitive to touch in general from hands, brushes or combs, and even water. Water on their face, in their eyes, or having shampoo get in their eyes can be difficult for all kids.
  • Some kids struggle with the sound of the clippers at the hairdresser or the sound of the water in a shower.

Tips for managing hair care and sensory needs:

  • Determine the root cause. Talk to your child and see if you can determine what the biggest sensory issues are. 
  • Setting Up a Routine and an Approach: Children with sensory processing disorder depend on a well-developed, reliable routine. Your child should have their hair brushed twice each day.
  • Massage their scalp before you begin brushing their hair. This will help them build tolerance for having their hair touched and having a hairbrush ran through their hair.
  • When you brush their hair, apply a firm, steady pressure. 

How to Brush Your Child’s Hair: 

Here are some tips on how to slowly integrate positive hair brushing into your child's routine. 
  • When you are brushing your child’s hair, hold onto a strip of hair above any tangle so that your child does not feel the tugging as you pull the tangle lose. Having them distracted while you do this is a great way to help you manage long hair. 
  • Use a hairbrush that has soft bristles. The bristles should have a rounded head to make the experience more comfortable.
  • If your child has knots in their hair, use a de-tangle spray. This will help with a lot of the discomfort of knots being combed out.
  • Use a firm, downward motion when you are brushing. Avoid using light strokes because it causes a different sensation than firm brushing. 
  • If your child has difficulty with using a brush, detangle their hair with your fingers. 
  • Encourage your child to brush their hair first. 
As you are teaching your child to enjoy having their hair brushed, you should start out slowly. 
Do not overwhelm your child by forcing them to sit longer than they feel comfortable, this will cause them to avoid your daily routine, or become agitated. Over time, your child will become accustomed to having their hair brushed, and become more comfortable with their overall personal routine.

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