People often ask me which of the many professionals my wife and I have consulted about our son Ezra has taught me the most. A doctor? A therapist? A teacher? They are often surprised to hear the answer: a barber.
As a toddler Ezra—like many children with autism—seemed uncomfortable in his own body. He would flee from noisy rooms, hands pressed against his ears. Even the gentle hum of a drinking fountain’s motor could frighten him. The texture of clothing so irritated him that he would often strip spontaneously at neighbors’ homes or the supermarket.
When he was three I decided it was time to tame his unruly head of straight, brown hair. He squirmed out of the chair in the hair salon, so I sat down, holding him in my lap.
“Noooo!” Ezra screamed at the woman wielding the scissors. “Don’t touch my hair!”
Despite her attempt to win him over with a lollipop, Ezra resisted, eventually grabbing her scissors and tossing them to the floor. I muttered an apology, paid the bill, and trailed after my son out the door.
That night after Ezra finally fell asleep, my wife finished the haircut. For more than a year, she maintained that practice, doing her best to trim his locks while he dozed.
Then someone recommended Hugh, the special-needs barber. I had to drive half an hour to get to the salon, a simple, stark shop with one thing that delighted Ezra: a basket of plastic dinosaur toys. While we waited, Ezra sat on the floor lining up the creatures in patterns, just as he did at home. Then he sat on the red chair, and Hugh—a stout, balding man—sprinkled talcum powder in Ezra’s hand.
“Now, my friend, I’m going to put some of this on your neck, so it’s not so itchy,” Hugh explained.
Before each step in the process, he offered Ezra a warning: “My friend, I’m going to comb your hair now. That okay?” Before he spritzed Ezra’s head with water, he gently sprayed some into my son’s palm.
“Don’t cut my ear off!” Ezra cried at one point, ducking. “You’re going to cut my ear off!”
Hugh calmly took Ezra’s little hand in his, showing my son how to hold his own ear flap down. Each time he spoke to Ezra, he used the same phrase: my friend.
Hugh told me he’d once worked in a children’s hair salon where the other employees were frightened to work with children who posed challenges. “What’s the big deal?” he asked. “They’re just people.”
At one point, Ezra got so antsy that he let his body go limp and slid from the chair. “Come on!” I said, trying to coax him back, but the barber waved me off. “He just needs a second,” he said. He waited calmly while Ezra carefully placed the dinosaurs in a line. Then my son immediately hopped back in the chair.
“Okay, ready,” Ezra said.
Before long, Hugh had finished the haircut. Holding Ezra’s hand, I walked out into the sunny afternoon, my son with the best haircut of his life, and I with lessons for a lifetime of parenting: be patient; follow the child’s lead; explain what’s going to happen next; treat the child with love. And this: they’re just people.