Autism and the mammoth hair tangle: solutions for the daily struggle

by Jennifer Dyer

Rachel has tons of beautiful hair … when it is not ratted in mammoth, gargantuan tangles. It’s ironic that of the three females in the family, the one who got the thick, lustrous hair hates having it touched.

I’ve often written about Rachel’s sensory needs. For a long time brushing Rachel’s hair was a triathlon spanning my bathroom, the upstairs hall, the stairs, the living room, the garage and even the car, which was my favorite because she was confined to a small space.

Though she hated others touching her hair, Rachel loved to swing her hair around and rub it with vigorous motions. She  rolled constantly in her sleep. By the end of last school year we had accumulated the Tangle To End All Tangles. It was huge, spanning the back of her head, the size of two fists.

I tried cutting it, brushing it bit by bit, everything. We even used horse hair detangler. What. A. Mess.

Thankfully, with the help of our Ms. Brenda, ABA therapist, and a few tools we have conquered the hair issue. (For now.)

Let me back up a bit. To get to the point where we could even pull out a brush without screaming, Rachel received years of sensory therapy, including the Wilbarger protocol, motion therapy that included swinging and spinning, deep pressure, water therapy and a host of other Occupational Therapy (OT) techniques.

When we started ABA therapy with Ms. Brenda, she told me Rachel had an attitude problem in addition to a sensory one. For years I had been so afraid of hurting her physically that I had let her get away with all sorts of behaviors and tantrums instead of doing what needed to be done.

In essence, Rachel had trained me how she wanted her world run.

No more, said Ms. Brenda. It’s time to pop some of those bubbles she has built around things she doesn’t like. It’s time for mom to take charge.

I quivered. Seriously? The years of screaming accumulated in my head. Seeing a hair brush gave me anxiety at this point, but as Brenda was going to hold my hand the entire way, I swallowed, hiked up my big girl pants and went to work.

A new context: By chasing Rachel I was creating a game out of hair brushing. Maybe no one enjoyed the game, but with a child who creates routines out of everything she can, this was an area that had to change pronto. I can hear the Dog Whisperer cheering me on right now–he would never let a canine get away with that because it shows weakness in the pack leader. So, no more can I let my daughter get away with it. Be strong, pack leader mama!


Start small: It took a lot of work and weeks to establish a new routine. Brenda brushed Rachel’s hair in their therapy sessions in small increments, usually counting between one to 10 strokes then rewarding Rachel. Then Brenda and hubby supported me while I brushed Rachel’s hair, not letting her run away. We praised her for sticking around, but held her in place. As we got better, I could remind her verbally to stay put.

The thing Mommy had to understand was that creating a new context for hair brushing was just as important as sensory desensitization, maybe more. Rachel has to be taught specifics on everything.

But our battle with the tangle did not just end with a few swipes of a brush. I found a few other items helpful along the way.

Hair Brush: After purchasing about 20 hairbrushes I found a winner with this one:

It is an Ionic Combo Paddle Bamboo Brush by Olivia Garden. I found it here. I even bought more than one. (I got the second brush on sale at Ulta. With my additional  coupon, I paid less than $10.) But even at full price (less than $20), I love this brush. I can’t tell you how much of a difference it makes for Rachel’s hair. Eldest and I love it too, hence the need for multiples.*

A good hair conditioner: I use Wen* hair products and Garnier Fructis* shampoo and conditioner. With these products and the brush I haven’t had to resort to a spray conditioner, but we have used those often in the past. Our worst issue with those was the fragrance. I never did find a fragrance-free spray conditioner. I’d be interested in hearing about one, though!

Silk pillowcases and sheets: If you can afford this, Ms. Brenda did some research and it turns out silk pillowcases help keep down tangles and wrinkles. (Good to know, eh moms?) Rachel ended up shoving her silk encased pillow against the wall, but I’m toying with the idea of sewing her a blanket or something with silk on it. I have looked into sheets, but they are quite pricey.

Cutting hair: You might be wondering why I didn’t just lob off Rachel’s hair. One, it’s beautiful hair. It’d be sad to cut it super short. Two, Rachel loves her hair. She likes it at least past her chin. Let’s face it, haircuts can be traumatic for most of us, so I’m not going to do something drastic. Three, I cut her hair at home. I do keep it trimmed, but it has taken years just to get her to where she will allow scissors near her head–I used to cut it in her sleep.

What kinds of hair issues do you have with your children? What have you found helpful?

*In case you were wondering, I have no affiliation with any hair products and receive no compensation from any product recommendations. I just want to pass along any helpful information.

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12 thoughts on “Autism and the mammoth hair tangle: solutions for the daily struggle

  1. Excellent suggestions for people with high sensory issues. Hurray for Ms. Brenda!!! Bravery award to mom for learning to help Rachel not get her way which puts another layer on her problems.

  2. Thanks and, yes, hurrah for Ms. Brenda!
    You know, I forgot to add the most important thing of all that we did: pray. Wow. I will go back and fix that.

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