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Thrive Autism Solutions Blog

How Systematic Desensitization Works for Kids with Autism

Posted by Thrive Autism Solutions on Aug 7, 2019 12:16:00 PM

How Systematic Desensitization Works for Kids with Autism

All kids balk at certain activities they must participate in.  You'd be hard pressed to find a preschooler who participates willingly the first time they visit the dentist or who sits perfectly for their first haircut.  For kids with autism, these routine rites of passage and many other regular daily activities pose huge problems.

We’ve known children with autism who struggle with having their hair washed, having their teeth brushed, having their hair brushed, sitting on the toilet, getting a haircut, fear of dogs, fear of bees, children who need a food desensitization autism-focused program; the list goes on and on and on.

There could be several reasons for the trouble they are experiencing.  This is why an individualized approach and a systematic way to move forward are key to success. It is important to understand the child's specific history with the aversion in question.  How adults have responded to the child before, during and after repeated attempts at a troublesome activity can offer insight on the underlying issues. 

Systematic desensitization, or desensitization therapy, is one technique that can often move the child and family from stress and avoidance to success gradually over time.  Essentially, the child is exposed to a simulation and eventually small amounts of the actual aversive condition in longer and longer doses as they are able to demonstrate calm behavior with exposure to each step.  In this way, they are able to build up to the ability to tolerate the troublesome event. 

Here's how this recently worked for a young friend of ours we’ll call Max.  Max was nine years old; an energetic, friendly, fun loving little guy who has autism.  Max.  Hated.  Haircuts.  When he was younger his parents would wrestle with him to cut his hair themselves.  It took two adults to get the job done and by the end of the task, everyone was in tears.  Going to a hair salon was absolutely out of the question.  As he grew older, Max’s mom took to waiting until he was asleep to sneak in and trim his hair with scissors.  There was even a story about having Max hanging his head backwards off the end of a truck bed (sweet southern boy)!  Although Max was decidedly handsome, his hair looked… funny… at best.

Max’s therapists started short sessions of simulated haircuts in his regular classroom.  Here are the progressions they moved through - moving from step to the next as Max was able to get through with calm behavior:

Max’s therapy room - implemented by his therapist:

  • Wear protective cape and sit in chair
  • Simulate cutting with scissors, gradually extending duration
  • Simulate cutting with scissors and electric clippers (clippers turned off and eventually turned on)
  • Simulate cutting with scissors and clippers turned on while chopped up Barbie doll hair falls on face and shoulders

Next, in Max's same therapy room, we brought in his hairdresser to move through the next steps.

Max’s therapy room - implemented by his hairdresser:

  • Simulate cutting with scissors and clippers turned on while chopped up Barbie doll hair falls on face and shoulders
  • Actual full haircut!

Max’s Hair Salon - implemented by his hairdresser: 

  • Full Haircut

This process occurred over a few months.  A lot of problem solving occurred as we went along.  Because haircuts only need to happen every few months, Max required booster sessions in between to maintain his ability to relax while having a haircut.  Over a year later, Max is having haircuts like a champ and no longer requires booster sessions in between! 

If you think this looks like a lot of work, you’d be right! This process takes time and commitment.  However, the end result is freedom from a struggle that is limiting to the child and family.  For many, it’s worth the work!

To find out more about autism and systematic desensitization, contact us!

Need a resource for your family, or to share with the family of a child who was recently diagnosed with autism? We have you covered. Click below to download our FREE guide today! 

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Tags: ABA Therapy