Haircuts are a lot to ask of any kid. The sitting still. The patience. The pair of scary scissors coming too close for comfort. Not to mention a salon full of customers and equipment that can’t be played with or bumped into. But when a child has autism, all of these components make trims a nearly impossible task. Recently, and just in time for Autism Awareness Month, I heard about Snip-its, an incredible national chain of hair salons for kids that specializes in working with children with autism. The franchise partnered with Autism Speaks to learn how to make the experience autism-friendly so every child can have a comfortable cut. All of the stylists are certified to work with children with autism, and they offer a haircutting guide for parents on how to prepare kids for a trip to the salon. But the fun part for the kiddos is that the salons are designed to look like a fantasy land of bright colors and characters, with games and TVs at each station to keep them occupied as the stylists work.
Melissa Hartwell, whose son Michael has autism, first discovered Snip-its when she brought Michael’s older brother in to get a haircut. Michael used to have to get his trims at school where the teacher would distract him with an activity and cut a small portion of his hair at a time while he was kept busy—sometimes having to stop before the job was complete. “Michael was always in a transition of haircuts. One day maybe they worked on the right side, the next day maybe the left,” says Melissa in her video of Michael’s experience. But when she brought Michael into Snip-its, he was so at ease that he let the stylist cut his hair right then and there—something Melissa never would have expected. “When you have a child with autism who has a lot of challenges to overcome, something as simple as being able to get a successful haircut means so much,” says Melissa.
Visit Snipits.com to find a location near you or learn more about the different services offered (such as birthday parties, lice prevention, and other kiddie spa services).
Whether your child has an aversion to many foods due to sensory processing disorder (SPD) or is just plain picky, getting through those big holiday meals can be more stressful than joyful. I recently tuned into a picky eaters webinar by the SPD Foundation, and Dr. Kay Toomey, a pediatric psychologist with more than 30 years experience working with children with feeding problems, provided some great ways to help kids she categorizes as picky eaters (children who will only eat a limited number of foods) and problem feeders (kids who suffer from SPD and are extremely selective about what they will eat). Here are some of her tips for getting through—and enjoying!—the holidays:
Talk about the holiday plans. Unfamiliar or uncomfortable situations can be overwhelming for kids and ultimately decrease their appetites. Before you travel or have extended family over, pull out the family photo album, have your child draw pictures of what she thinks the holiday meal will look like this year, or chat about the upcoming plans—anything that will give her a better idea of what to expect. This is also a good time to remind her about table manners such as using utensils, not interrupting, and saying excuse me.
Serve the food ahead of time. Most family traditions are about eating specific foods (ham, latkes, turkeys, yams, elaborate desserts, etc.), many of which children may not encounter during any other time of the year. If an unfamiliar food appears in front them, chances are they’re not going to eat it and even seeing it on their plate can cause a great amount of stress, especially for problem feeders. Try making some of these foods throughout the year so by the time the holiday comes around, your child will know what they are and how they taste, making him more likely to eat them during special occasions.
Prepare the meal together. If you’re doing any cooking for the holidays, have your child lend a helping hand in the kitchen. By letting him assist you, he experiences the smell and taste of the food without the pressure of having it on his plate. Toomey’s rule of thumb when it comes to cooking with the kids: 3- to 4-years-olds should be able to help you stir, open a package, or do a simple task to assist; 5-year-olds should be able to abide by safety rules and help cook a family meal once a week; and 7-year-olds should be cooking with you twice a week, actively preparing some portion of the meal.
Minimize changes in his routine. Getting off schedule when away from home is disruptive to children’s sleep patterns and appetite, so the less changes in their daily routine, the better. Try to serve your child meals and snacks at the usual time and resist the urge to let him stay up past his set bedtime.
Feed her before the main holiday meal. You can’t expect picky eaters or problem feeders to mind their manners and try new foods during a holiday meal. They realistically will only be able to do one or the other, so you’ll have to decide which is more important to you. It’s helpful to put something in their bellies beforehand so they’re not starving at the dinner table and so there’s less pressure for them to eat what is offered. This way they’ll be able to concentrate more on participating in the conversation and bonding with family, less on stressing over the fact that they’re hungry and have to eat unfamiliar foods. Remember: it’s more important they’re at the table and a part of the celebration than whether they’re eating what everyone else is.
Add one food they are sure to eat to the table. Even if children eat beforehand as recommended, you still want them to come to the table and participate in the meal as much as possible. To help them feel included, bring one food you know they’ll nibble on—even if it’s as simple as a roll, apple slices, or crackers. If they do happen to try something new on their own, don’t make a big deal out of it. You can mention something to them afterward or quietly at the table, but you don’t want to embarrass them in front of the family. And if they don’t eat at all, that’s also okay, as long as it is an option.
Bring something familiar from home he’s used to eating with or on. His favorite utensil, placemat, or cup can serve as a reminder of how he normally eats at home and cue the same eating habits in an unfamiliar place.
Create a secret signal. It’s a good idea to come up with a way for your child to let you know if she is getting overwhelmed during the meal and needs a break. You can give her a small card to hold up or establish a simple tap on the arm or leg to signal it’s time for a breather. This can also go the other way and you can signal to let her know she’s excused before a pleasant situation turns sour.
Control and limit the sweets. This can be difficult because those Christmas cookies and Hanukkah chocolates are a large part of the holiday, but it’s important to stand your ground. Not only does sugar cut down kids’ 20-minute appetite window to only 10 minutes, it also suppresses their appetite for substantial food and leads to cravings for more sweets. Aim for one sugary treat a day, and make sure they know to ask permission beforehand—they can’t just raid grandma’s cookie jar at their leisure.
Mask the scent. The smell of food can be too much for problem feeders, so it’s best to lessen it as much as possible. Try placing an isolating fan in the room where you’re having the main holiday meal. Or ask family members if they can open some windows while they cook so the smell isn’t completely permeating the house.
In light of the new guidelines on kids’ screen time from the American Academy of Pediatrics, we’re curious: How much time do you allow your child to spend in front of TVs, computers, video games, and handheld devices? Weigh in and then look out for the results in an upcoming issue of Parents!
“The Right Way to Give Allowance” in our May 2013 issue has sparked quite a debate. In the story, we said you shouldn’t pay kids for their regular household chores because it won’t teach them a positive work ethic. Research has shown that linking a responsibility (chores) to a reward (allowance) might make your child expect compensation for any task, rather than embracing his member-of-the-household duties. However, we noted that it’s perfectly acceptable to pay kids for jobs that go above and beyond their normal workload. Do you agree that an allowance shouldn’t be tied to chores? Take our poll below!
I’ve been to a ton of great talent shows over the years, but none have come close to impressing me as much as the Garden of Dreams Talent Show. The free event, put on by the Garden of Dreams Foundation and the Madison Square Garden Company each April, gives children struggling with unfortunate circumstances, such as illness and homelessness, the chance to forget about their problems by showing off their talents on the Radio City Music Hall stage.
I blogged about the show beforehand after chatting with celebrity host Tony Vincent and was expecting it to be chock full of great performers from his behind-the-scenes preview. What I wasn’t expecting was to be sitting in the audience with tears in my eyes after each act. To watch these genuinely talented kids express themselves and their hardships through their performances was an experience I can’t quite put into words.
Take 5-year-old Malik Naser, for example. Malik has to receive daily blood transfusions due to an illness and uses music as a distraction during the difficult routine – but you’d never know from the way he stood center stage sporting a fedora and bow tie as he sang Bruno Mars’ “Walking on the Moon.” Or there was 10-year-old Jeremy Dickinson whose love for singing got him through his neuroblastoma. He says he decided to perform “Put on a Happy Face” because he was always smiling, even through his toughest treatments. And if those two didn’t melt your heart enough, 6-year-old Julianna Pierre, a pediatric cancer patient at Maria Fareri Children’s Hospital, sweetly sang her favorite song from The Lion King, “Can You Feel the Love Tonight.”
The 15 other acts ranged from a seriously talented break dancing group called “High Energy” to rapper Kasean Session, whose powerful lyrics are about witnessing his mother’s murder when he was 6 years old.
The amped up audience, awesome celeb hosts (New York Giants Super Bowl champ Victor Cruz, the Rockettes, and Darryl ‘DMC’ McDaniels from Run DMC – to name a few), and unlimited free popcorn made the whole night as fun as it was touching. I can’t wait to see what will come of these young role models and what the Garden of Dreams Talent Show has in store for next year.
Check out the Garden of Dreams video below (shown at the beginning of this year’s show) to see for yourself how incredible these kids truly are.
Photo: Performer Malik Naser with New York Giants wide receiver Victor Cruz