Two days before our 19-year-old autistic son Mickey leaves for sleep away camp, he asks to get a haircut.
No big deal, right? But 15 years ago this would have been unthinkable.
Back then, the barbershop was the scene of some of our worst parenting moments. By 8:00 in the morning of the Dreaded Haircut Day, my husband Marc would already be muttering, "I need a scotch before I can do this" and he doesn't even drink scotch. Bracing himself in the barber chair, Marc would clench Mickey in a bear hug and scissor-lock him with his legs. Mickey would flail frantically, headbutting his father and screaming like someone undergoing surgery without anesthesia. Customers gawked. One old man snarled, "Rotten spoiled brat." Marc sweated through his shirt. When the barber declared he was done, I'd take Mickey into my arms. Sobbing and spent, he'd collapse against my shoulder; smearing us both with snot and hair. We tipped big. Very big.
Unable to face a repeat performance, we'd let long months go between haircuts. Mickey's great-uncle Jack liked to tease him. "You look like a girl, buddy!" he'd say. Some days when we'd walk by that barbershop on our way elsewhere, I could swear that as soon as the barbers saw us passing, they'd quickly pull down the white shade in the window that said "Closed for Lunch."
But today when we enter the barbershop Mickey sings out a cheery "Hi Dom!" as he plops into the chair. Dom drapes him in a maroon cape, and picks up a shaver. A screen splits in my head: I can still picture that terrified little boy, even as I watch my son, nearly a man, sitting solemnly watching his reflection in the mirror.
I wait quietly, soaking in the sounds of barbershop banter, the sports talk, the sharing of summer plans. It is all so completely ordinary. A radio is tuned to a Lite FM station; the song playing is Journey's "Don't Stop Believin'." I reflect how anyone who'd seen my son all those years ago would never have believed that Mickey would one day request -- insist -- we take him for a haircut. Yet here we are.
"How's this?" Dom asks. I stand beside Mickey and glance down; the cape is feathered in a field of light brown hairs, as covered as a forest floor.
"Let's take it down a bit more," I suggest. "Is that ok with you, Mick?"
"Yeah, Mom," he says.
I remember how we used to sneak into his bedroom at night with a pair of shears to give him a trim as he slept. I think of the time he was 5 and we took him to a local performance by the Paperbag Players; we hadn't known that they were going to perform a new skit called the "The Horrible, Horrendous, Hideous Haircut." "NO!" Mickey shrieked, and every head in the audience swiveled our way.
Nowadays, Autism Speaks' Family Services division offers a haircutting training guide for families and stylists on how to make the experience more positive, but back then there was nothing. Fortunately, one of our behavioral therapists offered to tackle the challenge. Mickey was 7 years old. She took him to the next town over -- too many negative associations with our local barber -- where they simply practiced strolling by a barber shop. The following week, they stood in the doorway. They progressed to sitting in the waiting area, watching other people get haircuts, then having Mickey sit in the barber chair. Eventually they introduced the cape; the shaver; the scissors. It took months, but by the time Kathy was done, Mickey was able to -- miracle of miracles! -- tolerate a haircut.
"This feels better," Mickey tells me. His hair is crew cut short; I can see his scalp. I think he's more handsome with a bit more hair. But Mickey is happy with how he looks, and that's all that matters.
"Thanks Dom," Mickey says softly. Dom dusts a brush with talcum powder, sweeps it across the back of Mickey's neck. Mickey stands, turns to me and asks, "Can I have a dollar?"
I give him a $20 bill. He hands it to Dom. "Keep the change," he says breezily. A man of the world.
"Is Dom proud of me?" Mickey asks.
"Very proud," I say. "You know what? We're all very proud of you."
This whole visit to the barbershop has lasted 15 minutes. But it took us years to get here.