I took Sam to a birthday party last weekend. It was lovely and astonishing in many ways, not least because, for the first time ever, he happily agreed to have his nails cut. Now, don’t get me wrong, short nails weren’t a pre-requisite of party attendance, but it was an activity party, they were verging on talons, the length normally seen attached to ladies what occupy themselves going to nail bars, and I have a squeamish dislike of the thought of bits of my children getting stuck in things and being ripped away, if you know what I mean. And Sam, well, he has an extreme aversion to chopping bits of himself off in any form and, up until now, for any reason.
I think it’s partly my fault. When A was a baby and I realised that when he touched him he left nail marks I took immediate action. His nails were cut down as short as was humanly possible and he hated it. It was easy when he was little. I just picked him up, wedged him between my legs and snip, snip, snip. Now that he’s almost fourteen and tops my shoulder it’s not quite so simple.
Bribery, threats, two of us to do the job, none of it works. He wriggles and squirms, his flexibility now working in his favour in his efforts to escape the blade. There comes a point at which, as adults, we become uncomfortable with the force required in order to bend a child to our will, and, with fingernails (and toenails, it has to be said), it was reached some time ago. Distraction is usually the last resort, but, even that has its limitations. It’s hard to play angry birds with one hand.
And hair. It doesn’t need cutting as often as nails, much to my relief, and, to Sam’s, I have a liking for longer hair on him, but still. There comes a point, usually when he can’t see or some sort of infestation (the less said about those the better) has occurred, when the scissors and the lovely locks must meet. When he was little I used to do it myself with my sewing scissors. He would sit in front of the telly, watching Makaton Nursery Rhymes for the millionth time, and I would crawl around him, trimming a little bit here and there as I went. I would like to say that I was destined to be an award winning dresser of infant hair, but, honesty compels me to admit that some of my attempts were more successful than others.
By the time he went to school, though, I had given up my pretensions to a career in hair. For some reason, Sam was no longer willing to let me cut a single hair on his head. Instead of sitting so still, like such a good boy, he ran off. He refused to have anything to do with it. From that point, my hunt for a hairdresser for him began.
Now I have to admit to a chequered past with them myself. Long ago, long before I came to live in my little town, I came under the care of Helen, hairdresser extraordinaire. I’d had a terrible cut one day, so bad that I actually returned to the offending salon and complained (I couldn’t handle the helmet look for a moment longer). She took me (and my hair) under her wing, persuaded me to grow it long and never, ever gave me a bad cut. I have yet to find another of her kind. It seems that there are some hairdressers who understand long hair and some who don’t. Some who know how to cut curls, and some who most definitely do not. I have walked out of the salon with a quizzical expression and a vow never to return more times than I care to remember.
We’ve tried a similar number of barber shops on Sam’s behalf. We tried the one with a playstation, and the one next to the sweet shop. Sweeties before, during (not recommended) and after. We tried daddy taking him with him to his hairdressers, me taking him to mine, all to no avail. He is fine until it is his turn, until he has to take his place upon the Chair of Torture. Extra cushions don’t help. Dogs on the overall don’t help. Even the mirror, usually a source of much delight, even that doesn’t help.
It would be easy to blame Sam’s problem with haircuts (or hair brushing, washing or combing of any kind) on a toddler friend who could no more resist pulling his hair as Sam could resist poking a plaster, but that wouldn’t be fair, or entirely explain the phenomenon. No, as he has grown, and so has my knowledge of Down syndrome, I have come to understand that sensory issues may be what is really going on. Some children, some adults, even, simply can’t bear the experience. And when I think about it, I know how he feels, because I go weak at the knees at the thought of the dentist. All that buzzing sets my teeth right on edge. Knowledge of what it is all about is all very well though, but the difficulty still remains. Just as I have to endure the dentist in the interest of the health of my teeth, so he must endure the nail/haircut (sadly, we have discovered, there is a direct correlation to the number of infestations to the length of hair and nails).
And then one day we discovered his Helen. Actually two Helens. One day we gave the traditional barber’s a try, you know the sort I mean, the one with a red-and-white pole outside (I haven’t told them the story of that), and there, in amongst this alien world of men who read newspapers and fishing magazines and grunt in a language of numbers I don’t understand, Sam finally consented, of his own free will, to the deed. Now, I’m not saying that it is plain sailing from here on in. Only last month did Daddy return from the ordeal, sweating and embarrassed by Sam’s reluctance to get it over with, but still. In these two women, Sam has met his match.
When Sam turns up, shaggy-haired, there is no special treatment for him. They give him the exact same loud-voiced take-no-nonsense bossing-with-kindness that they do everyone else. Once he’s in that chair he doesn’t dare move a muscle, such is his awe of these creatures, so used they are to handling the reluctant male. He submits to the clippers, blinks his way through clouds of talc, accepts the offer of gel and bounces free, shorn and more than pleased with himself in his success. No longer do I need to stand next to him, to hold his hand or keep his head still. And never, not once, have I had to raise my eyebrows and say, ‘there’s no need for the special needs haircut, you know’. After all, a girl does have some standards.