To The Hairdresser Who Changed How People Saw My Child With Special Needs

Dear Hairdresser Who Sang To My Kid,

I should know your name. I can’t believe I don’t. I was so busy trying to corral my two children, pay for their haircuts and maintain my sanity. I remembered to profusely thank you and I could have very well asked your name. In fact, I’m sure I did, but that important detail has faded. Unfortunately what I do remember is that people were staring at us prior to you calling my daughter, Lola, back. I remember my face feeling flush. I remember thinking the outing was a bad idea when Lola began to run in places she wasn’t supposed to, grabbed at things she shouldn’t have, and I remember the piercing scream she belted out when I tried to redirect her behavior. I remember my mom trying to offer assistance, but she was as helpless as me. Most of the final encounter you and I shared is now a distant memory (even if it was only a few weeks ago), but one thing I will never forget is this: how kind you were to my daughter.

I once read a story where the mother shared her fear that there would be a day when people didn’t think her child with special needs was “cute” anymore. As the child aged, the little nuances the kid had would no longer be adorable or socially acceptable. She voiced that for some reason, strangers love babies and toddlers with special needs, but the cuteness factor clearly wears off with time. This struck a chord with me because Lola is now pushing 4 1/2 years old. She’s a delightful little soul who has faced tough medical challenges in her short years on this earth. She has an extremely rare genetic condition called Bosch Boonstra Schaaf Optic Atrophy Syndrome which has caused cortical visual impairment, developmental delays and epilepsy. This condition affects most every aspect of her life, but Lola has always been ridiculously charming and she sure is a beauty, yet I’m starting to understand the writers concern. A tantrum by an almost 5-year-old is not really that cute anymore. In fact her occasional tantrum used to be a cue for others to say, “Don’t worry, it’s just the terrible twos,” but that has now turned into uncomfortable stares and awkward whispering. Because she is now becoming a little girl, a screaming fit or my inability to get her to stand up and walk now makes her look like a spoiled child who doesn’t listen. I totally get it because I was once on the other side. Before I had a child with special needs, I probably would have been curious as to why a kid couldn’t be easily calmed. Yet now it’s our life. Now I wish I could go back and have more compassion. It’t not that I was ever rude; I was just naive. I wish I could have offered an empathetic look that said, “I’m not looking at you. I see you.”

Lola has incredible hair. You even noted how gorgeous her hair was. She has had more haircuts than any other kid I know — without incident. So it came as a huge surprise when she began to have a meltdown as you started to cut her hair. You and I tried everything. You took extreme caution because you didn’t want to upset her more. You were gentle in your actions and words. You tried to talk her through it, but she was angry. I gave her my phone and she just threw it. Thinking quickly, I grabbed your mirror because she loves mirrors and she cried even harder. Nothing was working. I was baffled by her unusual behavior yet we were getting used to her fits of displeasure no thanks to an anti-epileptic drug called Keppra. But I didn’t have it in me to explain the awful side effects we she has had to endure. I just wanted to get through that moment. And just when I was about to give up you did something I didn’t see coming — you began to sing to her. I’m crying now thinking back to that moment. Finally, we began to see Lola relax.

A lot of people are genuinely curious about Lola yet others will say the most asinine things like, “She doesn’t look like she has special needs.” Really? That sure is comforting. “God only gives special kids to special people.” That’s ridiculous, in my opinion. There are awful stories in the news every day about parents doing horrific things to their kids with special needs. I do feel pretty lucky she’s mine though. “I don’t know how you do it.” What? Love my kid? Me either–it sure is hard. “Well, can’t she talk?” No. As a matter of fact she can’t right now. Why do you think she is screaming so loudly? It’s because she can’t voice her dismay. “She doesn’t look visually impaired.” Why? Is it because she doesn’t use a white cane to guide her? I’m telling you, the comments are something I couldn’t make up.

Why can’t people see her as just a kid? Why does she have to be a spectacle?

Most days I educate and other days I ignore the comments. I’ll admit there are times I just want to go about our life and not explain a damn thing. But I almost always want to adamantly defend her because she has worked so hard to get to where she is today. In this journey, I’ve realized most people just don’t know any better. So you can understand why it came with great surprise to see how warm and gracious you were with Lola. You would say, “It’s OK Lola,” and then you would start singing another song. You would look at me for approval and I would just smile. I think the tears in my eyes said it all. I was grateful for you. Near the end of the haircut, you quietly shared that you had a daughter with Asperger Syndrome. You told me you understood what I was feeling in that very moment. You said you were able to cut your daughter’s hair at home, but that she had similar meltdowns like the one you saw my daughter experience. You didn’t have to share all of this with me, but I was thankful you did. In fact, it meant a lot to me.

Your act of kindness seeped into the hearts of the onlookers. What once were stares that said, “Get your kid together,” now were looks of empathy instead of pity. Most were quick to say hello to Lola. Some even asked if she liked her haircut and they now jumped at the chance to get the door for us. You see, showing compassion is a trait not everyone embodies, but the compassion you showed my family mirrored what others can easily do in their everyday lives. Perhaps the next time they see a child having a tantrum, they will remember that Saturday afternoon. Hopefully they will recall the songs you sang and the calmness you instilled in my daughter. Hopefully they will remember how easy it is to just be kind.

The Tearful Mom in the Salon