The life of an autistic child is oftentimes about routines and schedules. In Helene’s case, there is very little of her life that isn’t planned in advance – not because it suits us, but because it suits her. She has a much easier time transitioning through the different happenings in her day when she knows what to expect. ”Spontaneous” is not part of our vernacular except as antecedent to “combustion.”
So, today, as I was getting ready to leave the house with Nate to get him a haircut, I found Helene sitting on the living room floor, putting on her shoes.
[Let me pause here to explain that shoes are highly symbolic for Helene. When she does not want to go somewhere, she will fight the hardest right before her shoes go on. Once the shoes are on, though, the bark dilutes to a dull whine, as though she is resigned to the fate of going wherever the shoes might take her. When Helene gets home, the very first thing - the VERY. FIRST. THING. - she does is take off her shoes. This is often accompanied by her throwing some serious shade in her parents' direction, subliminally conveying the message that she WILL NOT be leaving the house again, thankyouverymuch].
Me: ”What are you doing?”
Aaaaaaaaaaaaand here’s the answer I did not anticipate. I COULD NOT anticipate …
Helene: ”I go get haircut.”
Me: ”You want to come watch Nate get a haircut?”
Helene: ”I want haircut.”
Um. Okay? Okay.
*Fast forward 20 minutes*
Helene, the Hubs, Nate and I are sitting in the waiting area of the barber shop. About 3-foot-six-inches of absolute cutie-patootie walks up to us and says, “Hi, Helene!” Before I can really put together what’s going on, Helene says, “Hi, A!” The two of them promptly sit down next to each other, and A starts jabbering up a storm. Thankfully, Hubs and A’s mom get me up-to-speed: A is one of Helene’s classmates at school (but he has early dismissal, so I’ve never seen him before.)
Now, this exchange would be remarkable enough. But, WAIT! THERE’s MORE!
Helene had her iPad with her, as we anticipated the need for a distraction during the haircut. (You know, the haircut we are not entirely yet convinced is actually going to happen.)
[Let me pause here to explain that Helene is a pretty decent sharer ... except when it comes to her iPad. You want to learn mad ninja skills? Touch her iPad. Go ahead. I. DARE. YOU.]
A was definitely eyeballing the iPad, and I could feel myself tensing, bracing for the inevitable smack down coming A’s way, grateful that A’s mom would not judge the ensuing global-thermo-nuclear-wrath. Then, A blew the lid off Pandora’s box: ”Helene, can I have a turn?”
[Pausing again. Also, foreshadowing. Also, also? Spoiler alert. Do you know what was left in Pandora's box after? The very last thing left? Hope. Think on that for a minute.]
Before the synapses of my brain could carry the signal from whatever source of origin makes your vocal chords vibrate; before my mind could tell my muscles to move my mouth; before I could even blink … Helene handed A the iPad. As if that wasn’t enough, she patiently sat next to A and watched him take a turn on the game she played. And, as if THAT wasn’t enough, when A finished with it, he handed it back to Helene, said thank you, and Helene responded, “You’re welcome!” Wash, rinse, repeat – for a good ten minutes.
AND, and, and, and, and, and … A decided he wanted to play a different game. Helene was cool. Totally cool. Cucumber cool.
Oh, and did I mention there was a vacuum cleaner and a hair dryer going off and on THE WHOLE TIME?
This right here? This would’ve been enough to convince me that Peter Pan can fly, reindeer are sometimes born with blinking noses, wishing wells really work, and it was totally worth burying a potato in the backyard.
But, WAIT. THAT’S NOT ALL!
The stylist called A’s name for his turn in the barber chair. He wasn’t too excited about it. In fact, he was pretty articulate about how much he did not care for the big idea of getting a haircut. Well, I thought, that should do it for Helene.
Then this happened:
Helene got into the chair. Helene let the stylist put the cape on her. Helene let me undo her braid, and she let the stylist comb her dry hair. She didn’t even complain when the stylist sprayed her hair with water.
It was amazing, surprising, thrilling. But, here’s where spontaneous decisions typically end up with a very different ending …
The barber shop was very busy. It’s the kind of shop that specializes in men’s and boy’s cuts. The stylists are young, cute, and hustling to get through their respective workloads. Yet, here comes my sensory-challenged daughter with hair down to her waist …
We hit the mother of all lotteries.
The stylist who drew Helene’s name was the sweetest, kindest, most patient, least judgmental, perfectly understanding woman EVER. As Helene approached her chair, I quickly explained that Helene is autistic and has a lot of sensory sensitivities, this was her first real haircut, and if Helene couldn’t make it through, I didn’t want the stylist to push it or feel bad – this was more about the experience and less about the haircut, and while Helene seemed quite game, that could change suddenly through no one’s fault. This exchange was a 15-second conversation. Yet, somehow, this angel of a woman heard every word. She combed gently. She never asked Helene to hold or turn her head a certain way. She let Helene stand when sitting wasn’t working for Helene anymore. She verbally reassured Helene. She worked herself into a pretzel on the floor to cut Helene’s hair into an amazingly straight line. She swept with the broom instead of getting out the vacuum, because she didn’t want to scare Helene. (Also, aside to bossy manager stylist who wanted our stylist to use the vacuum: your karma looks a lot like paper cuts and lemon juice to me. Just sayin’.) Our stylist was super patient, kind (without being patronizing or condescending) and - she finished Helene’s haircut!
Afterward, we went out for celebratory frozen yogurt. As we sat at the table, Helene looked at us and said, “Oh, Helene Bear, you got your hair cut. I am so proud of you!”
“Yes, little lady,” I said, “you should be proud of you. You were very brave.”
All this for one easy payment of a dish of vanilla fro-yo topped with marshmallows, gummy bears, gum drops, mini M&Ms, chocolate rock candy and Nilla wafers.