The chaos and mania of parenting a child on the spectrum

Hair-Brushing Nightmares and Sensory Processing Disorder

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All little girls hate having their hair-brushed, right? Honestly, my boys aren’t all that thrilled with it either. My son, with his “hockey hair,” avoids it like the plague, and with “hat-trick skills,” shoves it into a hoodie or snow hat before I can catch him in the morning. But my daughter cannot get away with this as easily. First of all, she doesn’t want to go out of the house looking like she has just played three periods of pond hockey in sweaty goalie gear…she wants to look like Rapunzel. She wants me to put waterfall braids in her hair, and intricate twists, and bows… never-mind that I barely have the skills to put a ponytail in her head without it snapping, or that while I’m doing this she lets off high pitch unmerciful screams so horrendous that I am shocked the neighbors haven’t called the police.

She has extreme sensory process disorder (or dysfunction) that mostly presents in her sense of touch. Those with children with sensory processing disorder understand far too well that the reaction to even normal, ordinary sensations is dysfunctional. So if something is uncomfortable or mildly painful to a typical child, than the child with sensory processing disorder not only reacts, but truly experiences extreme and intense pain. Having her hair brushed is agony for her. (If you’re unsure whether your child has spd or simply dislikes having their hair brushed, check out: Top 10 red flags for Sensory Processing Disorder, at

My mother told me she’d just cut it off. Like she did to mine when I was eight and she had them cut it into “the Dorothy Hamill”, for which I never truthfully forgave her.   I can’t do it. My daughter wants to grow her hair to her waist. Another friend told me that maybe I should teach her to focus on something other than outer beauty. (Obviously, that is all I am focused on), and not the serious impending health hazard the matted dreaded mess of her head will create when wildlife begin nesting in it. And by the by, if it were really up to me, I’d dread it Lisa Bonet style and be done with it. And my daughter…would be miserable.

She is different in so many ways, struggles so desperately to fit in, if having pretty hair is one superficial trivial way for her to feel good, then so be it. I am not interested in taking strong feminist social stands at this juncture. I just don’t want her to look like a homeless person.

It is a basic matter of hygiene. And to be honest, when I see her get off of the bus, her jacket disheveled, misbuttoned and hanging from her shoulders, smears of peanut butter and jelly on her face, and her hair in a crazed, tangled heap, it saddens me. It is an outward projection of the disorder that is happening inside. And let’s face it. Everyone is judging her by it. And judging me.

So what to do? We have tried all manner of detangling spray. She screams because it is making her hair wet, even when her hair is already wet. I tried kids’ organic raspberry detangling spray and she decided the cartoon picture on the bottle made her gag. Blue spray bottles are for boys. We have tried soft brushes, hard brushes, round brushes, vent brushes, and a large glittery brush with pink bristles, Elvis-like Rhinestones, and her initial on it. (This one works the best…obviously). But she stills screams like a wild banshee. Most recently, screeching the word “joust” whenever I come near her with the brush.

For what it is worth, here is the only method I have found that works provided all the right “conditions” are in place. My daughter has also decided she hates taking baths and showers because her hands and feet get “pruny.” No talk of mermaids, bubble baths, or swimming like fishies has been able to detract from this particular obsession. If you do not have this odd and annoying obsessive-compulsive issue, than you may have an easier go. If I can distract her with toys, bath crayons, or princess body wash then we are good to go for step one.

Choose the Right Pillowcase.   I remembered hearing that satin pillowcases were better for your hair, but never bothered thinking they were an expensive luxury. While it won’t rid your child of SPD, it does help relieve snarls and keep fragile hair from dehydrating. I found a satin pillow case for only $9.99 from and it was pink with Bubblegum trim—perfect. But it comes in an entire rainbow of colors.

We HAVE to take a bath or shower in the morning. Sleeping on a wet head will always result in tangles and they are much harder to get out once she has spent the night twisting and turning against the pillow case.

Skip Shampoo if needed. Sometimes my daughter can all tolerate a minimal amount of touch and the conditioner is more important. Traditional shampoos can dry the hair out and make tangles worse, so I like to use only sulfate-free shampoos. There are many drugstore brands, but since I have curly hair myself I love a called DevaCurl. The make a “no poo” and a “low poo,” shampoo that hydrates the hair.

Use Tons of Deep Conditioner. There’s nothing that cures tangles better than a good deep conditioner. Again, anything that is sulfate free is better for curls and so it also helps tangles. Deva-curl “One Condition” is great for everyday and the deep conditioner “Heaven in Hair,” are both great. They contain zero sulfates, parabens, or silicones and smell great. If the smell doesn’t calm her, it at least calms me. They also carry a leave in and a “No-Comb” de-tangling spray. I admit, the no-comb promise pulled me in, even though I know better, but it does work pretty darn well. Truthfully, if I only have to use the detangler for the most monstrous of knots. The conditoner works that well.  It is a little on the pricey side, but well worth it. You can find them at

Choose the Right Brush. My daughter is rigid that it was difficult to get her to try anything other than her glittery Elvis brush, so it took convincing for me to drag another plastic pronged weapon through her head. She relented when I told her this was a special “Double Detangler,” also by Ouidad. There is a great guide to hairbrushes and a review of this brush in “The Hairbrush Manifesto,” by Zoe Foster.

Try a Blow Dryer. We blow dry her hair in front of her favorite cartoon instead of a big mirror. This may not work for those children who are sensitive to noise, but my daughter responds to the white noise it makes. It calms her and distracts her from the brushing. More importantly, it mutes her screaming so that my nerves are not set on edge.


If I don’t see it, it must not be there. If all else fails, I leave those matted tangles near the delicate neckline alone. I know they’re there but no one else does, so it makes me feel better. Sometimes I wait for the hairdresser to take care of those. She does far better at the hairdresser than at home. Yes, of course she does.

Wine never hurts. (For me, obviously.)   A glass of pinot noir makes the whole process go a lot easier. Or if need be just singing “Red, red wine” as loud as I can. So I can drown her out when she starts screaming, “Joust, you’re hurting me.”

Cover up. I follow my son’s lead and find something to mask anything that looks hideous with one of those tacky flowers from Claire’s Boutique.

Beauteous. Maybe not. But we have not found any animals nesting in her head, and I haven’t had to cut it. In the meantime, I am holding onto the solace that she eventually grew tired of shoving pink and purple crayons up her nose, so there is hope this battle will soon pass. Or I will bide my time for the teenage years when she rebels and shaves it into a Mohawk.



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