To the Man in the Barbershop Who Called My Autistic Son a ‘Sissy’


“Don’t you dare call my autistic son a ‘sissy!‘”

These are the words I wish I’d uttered on that particular day. It was a sunny, beautiful Saturday afternoon — made even more beautiful by the fact that it was my youngest child’s birthday. Five years old! We had plans for a fun-filled day that was going to be spent doing things he enjoyed, and I was so excited. Maybe more excited than he was!

My brother-in-law planned to give the birthday boy a haircut, but I ended up having to take him to a barbershop instead. I was disappointed because he does a great job cutting my son’s hair. His approach is gentle, slow and explanatory, and he’s willing to let my son take breaks if needed. It’s difficult to find people who are similarly accommodating, especially on short notice. So I called the barbershop I use for my older boys, explained the situation, made an appointment to arrive within the hour and hoped for the best.

En route to the barbershop I explained to my son what was happening so he could be prepared, and I asked him what I could do to make him feel more at ease when it was his turn. When we got there, I was ushered over to a barber. I said I was the one the owner told him about, and I introduced him to my son. I explained I would sit on the chair and my son would sit in my lap for the duration of the haircut because he wasn’t comfortable sitting on the chair alone. I also explained the following:

Related: I Let My 4-Year-Old With Autism Use My Camera. Here’s How He Sees the World.

  • The apron used to protect clothing from falling hair not be fastened too tightly around my son’s neck.

  • My son requested I sing songs from various Disney Junior shows during the haircut to help keep him calm.

  • My son would need to inspect and “test” the electric razor against his hands before allowing the cutting to begin.

  • Only I was to hold my son’s ears down when we got to the part of the haircut requiring that, not the barber.

  • Throughout the haircut, my son needed the barber to explain what was going on and to pre-announce any changes, like the need to pause and switch to a different razor.

  • If it got to be too much we might need to stop, even if the haircut wan’t “perfect,” just as long as it still looked decent.

  • Regardless of all of these precautions, my son would probably still cry.

He listened and told me he was fine with all of that. I said a quick prayer, and then we took our seats and got started.

It’s important to me that I always respect my children’s privacy, so I won’t go into specific detail about how my son reacted during the actual haircut. I don’t believe in “live tweeting” or otherwise describing for others the difficult moments my children face and what they might do/say when they’re having a hard time and are not at their best. Let’s just say it wasn’t the best experience of his birthday. Let’s just say it totally sucked. And if not for the fact that he was really overdue for a haircut, I would have preferred that he not even have to go through it.

But my son’s reaction is far from the worst part of this story. That would instead be a person who was waiting there to get his own hair cut. I don’t know the name of this male presenting person, and I have never seen him before (and I hope to never see him again). Let’s just call him Mr. Ableist Sexist Jerk, or Mr. ASJ for short.

Mr. ASJ took it upon himself to bully a little child. A child who was clearly in agony. A child he did not know and had no right to address in such a way. A child many decades younger than he, and a child with a disability who was not in a position to defend himself.

I’ll just give you the highlights of some of the “lovely” comments Mr. ASJ felt the need to hurl at my 5-year-old child.

“Hey, you need to stop all that crying. That’s too much crying. Nobody wants to hear all that.”

Related: When I Overheard a Conversation Between My Son With Autism and His Brother

“Are you a little boy? I don’t think so. Maybe you’re a little girl. Because a boy wouldn’t be crying like that. I think you must be a girl, huh?”

“Stop acting like a sissy. Only sissies cry for no reason. Haircuts don’t hurt.”

I didn’t realize what he was saying nor that he was addressing my child; not at first. My concentration was primarily on my child and trying to keep him comfortable. Then the barber cutting my son’s hair stopped what he was doing, stood up tall and said, “Man, you need to quit hollerin’ at a child like that. This boy isn’t bothering you so you need to leave him alone. He’s a boy with autism so you don’t know if it’s hurting him or not. He’s my customer and you need to show my customer some damn respect in here.” To which Mr. ASJ said,

“That boy doesn’t have autism. I heard him talking. He’s just a mama’s boy.”

That’s when it dawned on me that the tirade, which I had ignored, had been directed at my baby boy. And that though I hadn’t been paying attention, the barber had heard it all, gotten upset and was speaking up to defend my son.

I am generally a nice person. I consider myself pretty tolerant and I give people a “long leash.” But when I get mad, I get mad. There is some truth to the phrase, “Hell hath no fury like that of a woman scorned.” And then to add insult to injury you are messing with my child?! Oh heck no. I could feel the anger rising up in me as I prepared a retort in defense of my child. It was about to be on.

And just then my son’s tears, which had subsided for a short while, resumed. Louder and with more fervor. In that moment I abandoned my plan to give Mr. ASJ a piece of my mind and turned my attention back to my son. I began singing to him again and slightly rocking him the way he likes, and telling him I was proud of him, I loved him and that he was doing a great job. I told him we could stop the haircut any time he liked. The barber joined in with me, telling my son, “You’re such a good boy! You look sharp too! Wait till you see your haircut. Almost done now.”

I sincerely doubt Mr. ASJ will read this, but in case he does, this is what I wish to say to him:

I’m the mother of the autistic little boy you were bullying on Saturday. I want to thank you for being a living example of everything I’m teaching my son not to be.

Related: The Jack Nicholson Line That Made Me View Autism Differently

Like the barber told you, my son is autistic. Just because he can “talk” doesn’t mean he isn’t autistic. He has a disability, and he was crying because haircuts are difficult for him. Instead of you being sensitive to him like every other person in the shop was, you made it worse. I’ll have you know that calling my child a “mama’s boy” isn’t the insult you meant it to be. I am his mama, and I’m proud to have my boy’s back all day every day. I’m raising him to be a strong black man.

A real man wouldn’t yell at a child. He would comfort him. A real man knows there’s nothing wrong with crying. He knows there’s nothing wrong with being a “little girl” and doesn’t think that calling someone a “girl” is some type of slur.

You know what else a real man knows? He knows that to call an autistic boy a sissy is the height of disrespect. It’s rude (and homophobic, for that matter) to call any boy a “sissy.”

There’s nothing shameful or wrong with a child expressing their feelings nor with a mother comforting her child. I’m raising my son to know that when he’s hurt or scared, I’m there for him. I’m not ashamed of being that type of parent, and I won’t let you make my son ashamed of it.

Follow this journey on Just Being Me…Who Needs “Normalcy” Anyway?

By Morénike Giwa Onaiwu

(Photo: ThinkStock)

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