On Putting My Autistic Daughter's Hair Into A Ponytail

Much is still possible and well worth celebrating!

One of my favorite things to do is brush my grown daughter’s long blondish hair and ask her how she wants to wear it.

“Up and back,” she always says, at which point I ask “Back pony, side pony or braid?”

Usually she chooses a back pony and I wrestle her thick, lovely locks into a colorful band as expertly as I can, moved more than I’d imagine by this simple task, which is much more an act of love than hair care.

She sits still and seems happy as I perform this ritual, which I think she enjoys as much as I do. That’s probably why I’ve not adequately tried to teach her to do it on her own, which I need to get cracking on to further promote her independence, given delays due to autism.

I’ve made lame and sporadic attempts to engage her in the process but her halfhearted participation and obvious apathy gave me little incentive to push it further so, despite her dexterity and many abilities, doing her own hair hasn’t been among them.

I myself have sported a shag of sorts most of my life and spent more time fighting frizz than learning how to tame long tresses and create fancy updos. I had no familiarity with the tantalizing array of ponytail holders out there until a friend gently informed me that, instead of using rubber bands as I was on my little girl’s hair, there were actual products designed just to hold and decorate it from which to choose, including soft and stretchy holders made of elastic, ribbon and velvet, too-in every style and hue imaginable. We still laugh about that and how I managed to entirely miss their presence in stores until told.

Now I have no fewer than 200 hair ties, clips, headbands and barrettes at all times, scattered about my home and stored in pretty glass bowls ― items I treasure like gems for what they represent to me and my reasonably well-coiffed daughter.

Which includes gratitude that I’m here for this daily and much-loved routine, accompanied by a fleeting fear that she’ll someday miss my special touch even though I frankly make a lousy braid and can’t for the life of me create a classic French Twist.

But I figure, as long as she needs me to, that I’ll happily make her ponytails and will remind her, as my fingers do their work, that she’s the sweetest, smartest, most beautiful girl in the world and I’ll plant a kiss atop her head infusing it with more love than I could have ever imagined my heart could hold.

But later as I look at my masterpiece which is her high, swinging pony, I feel a small wave of guilt waft on by, weighing me down, much like the heft of her hair which makes her ponytail droop.

The reality is that, had I really tried, I could have taught her to do this herself a long time ago. While she might not ever do it as well as me, because it’s frankly hard to do your own hair behind your head and because autism challenges her understanding of the more complex mechanics, she could have and will learn to neatly brush and gather her hair, in accordance with her preference to wear it up.

So I resolve to start working with her again on this, vowing to prioritize it soon. I’m glad at least that she responds when I ask her to bring me her brush and choice of hair tie and so tonight, when it seemed she ignored me, I was disappointed and curious.

When I later walked up to her with brush and pink twisty tie in hand, I could not believe what I was seeing ― a beautifully flawed pony tail featuring a third or so of her hair hanging out, the rest secured in a cobalt blue tie (her favorite color) which, without notice, she quietly took and managed to shove her hair through.

I sprinted through the house to find my husband demanding to know whether he’d made that pony which, thankfully, he hadn’t. Boy, was I pumped! We both raced back to her to see if I’d imagined it and were thrilled to see I hadn’t, that our daughter had made her first ponytail ever.

For autism parents this is big, very big.

Clapping, hugs and hoorays from us followed and, while she wasn’t overly impressed by our display, we could tell she was proud by the look in her eye and her shy half-smile, the same one her older brother wears when praise for his achievements (like graduating law school) are lavished on him.

And so it goes. My daughter can sort of do her own hair and is newly motivated to try which means that, even if the sky’s not actually the limit, much is still possible and well worth celebrating.

Meanwhile, I’ll keep collecting hair swag in every conceivable color, texture and pattern to help pique her interest and move things forward. Who knows, we might even wind up learning to fashion a low bun, top knot or that elusive French Twist.