Developing a 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. 
Self Care 
Many people with autism have difficulty with being touched in certain ways. This difficult is caused by a partnering condition known as sensory processing disorder. With most self-care routines, there are a number of sensations involved in their process. The key to improving the way someone with sensory processing disorder relates to having their hair brushed is creating a better relationship between your child and the sensations involved in hair brushing. 
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 a 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. Brush with a predictable number of strokes. When you first begin, start with a small number of brushes and slowly increase the number of brush strokes used in each sitting. 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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