July 4, 2020 by whirlyjoy
I’ve had the same hair stylist for almost as long as I’ve had my children. Back then when my stretch marks were fresh, and blotches of breast milk and peanut butter seemed to find their way onto every article of clothing I owned, I kept my hair pixie-short to spare it a similar fate. I found a salon a block away from the apartment, and a serene and bohemian young woman with amazing razor skills she’d recently honed at a workshop in New York City, and for awhile I could count on good hair, at least those months I was able to find an hour with Miss Serenity.
Then she left for another salon in another part of the city, and I was handed off to a young woman who… the kindest way to put it is that she lacked the same skills, which may also explain her grumpy demeanor. We both came away traumatized from that session. So I found out where Miss Serenity had gone and followed her there — a pretty big deal for me, back when the girls were small, Pepe LePew had returned to France, and my world was telescoped down to a couple of lucid hours a day and a few blocks’ radius from home.
Since then I’ve brought my hair to Miss Serenity for her ministrations, through four different locations, every couple of months or so — until the coronavirus shutdowns.
Aida’s hair is thick, dark and curly; quite lovely when it’s clean and brushed. Unfortunately, washing and brushing her hair are a couple of the things that have long confounded Aida. She is mostly completely oblivious to her appearance (an enviable gift of unselfconsciousness), so the Why of hair grooming isn’t clear to her; and the How is also challenging to her fine motor skills and proprioception. These days she’ll humor us as we help her tidy up her hair in the mornings, but still needs assistance finding the back of her head with a brush. “I’ll just let these people work through their compulsive need for this routine,” her little smile says while this is going on, “so we can get on to breakfast.”
Things weren’t always this peaceful when it came to Aida’s hair. For a long time, its normal state was a kind of rat’s nest of tangles, and the best way to keep it manageable was to keep it very short. Her first cuts as a toddler involved screaming, struggling and bribes (or, as they are known in Applied Behavior Analysis, positive reinforcements) and left everyone involved shaking and limp with nervous exhaustion, including Aida herself. We saw the same heroic hairdresser as nearly every other child from her special ed preschool, at a trendy children’s salon nearby. (She reassured me when I apologized for my daughter’s behavior: “Honey, I’ve been bitten and barfed on. Your little one is doing just fine.”) Eventually this became a routine Aida could tolerate, as long as she always sat in the same chair — the car, not the train or the boat — and no waiting was involved.
I stuffed her long limbs into that toddler-sized wooden automobile for several years past the age range it was really intended for, completely terrified at the thought of how she’d manage the change to a different setting. Not least because that setting would no longer be for trendy children, but for adults. How much more would her behavior stand out there? Was there anywhere that would tolerate it long enough for Aida to become comfortable through familiarity?
Miss Serenity understood autism from family experience. We’ve shared stories across my soapy scalp and foil-wrapped locks over the years. One day she asked me, wouldn’t you trust me to cut Aida’s hair? I argued that she didn’t fully understand the challenges involved. What about the salon owner and the other customers? How would they react? “We’ll just have to try it and see,” she replied, true to her name.
Home haircuts have become kind of a thing, with the coronavirus closures. On one of my walks with the Wonderdog I saw a couple out on their balcony, him seated with a towel draped over his shoulders, her bent over his neck with clippers buzzing. Our friends have posted pictures on social media of cuts performed on their loved ones, the before and after photos, the sweetly vulnerable shots of a shaggy quarantinee trustingly seated while their life partner stands over them with shears in hand.
I’ve been watching the trend with trepidation, not feeling at all equipped to perform this new COVID-era ritual of cohabitation. When the Dragon Lover declared himself ready for a trim, he spread a sheet on the bathroom floor and took the clippers to himself, then apologized for the bits of hair that he hadn’t quite managed to sweep up before leaving for work. “I’m just glad you didn’t ask me to cut your hair,” I told him. He looked slightly stunned. “Sweetheart, I love you, but I’ve seen your challenges with spatial reasoning.” I hadn’t needed to worry. The DL can take care of his own hair.
In the years that Aida has been going to Miss Serenity for her cuts, she’s learned to tolerate leaning way back to get her hair washed, sitting (fairly) still with just minimal prompting while scissors circle her head, the slight pull of the wide-jawed clips pinning layers up out of the way, the tickling buzz of the clippers finishing off the nape of her neck. None of these things were easy for her. It took courage, patience and empathy to get her there. Miss Serenity provided these things for Aida in moments when I felt too overwhelmed to do so.
Yesterday I waited in my car outside the salon until Miss Serenity texted that her previous client had left and I could come in. We both wore masks while she worked, caught up on six months of news, and speculated about when it might be possible for Aida to come back in for a trim. Her hair grows fast, and I think there are still some months to go before either masks are no longer needed, or she learns to tolerate one for long stretches. Some months to go of her staff carefully brushing out her lengthening rat’s nest before breakfast. In our world a good hair day isn’t just about working snarls out of hair; it’s about the people who work through the impossible tangles of everyday autism with us.