Salons cater to children with autism

Amelia Nierenberg
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

PITTSBURGH — Around midday on a recent hot Sunday afternoon, Lela Forrest, 11, walked into Sharkey’s Cuts for Kids in Robinson, Pa., wearing hot-pink noise-canceling headphones over her wild sandy-blond curls.

The headphones — similar to those one might wear at a shooting range — are a staple of Lela’s wardrobe. She likes to wear them to school, to gymnastics class and even around her house in Crafton, Pa.

Another child is in the salon near the back, a squirming blond toddler. When Lela heard him whining and crying as toddlers do, she recoiled and pressed her hands over her hot-pink headphones.

“People are loud,” she says. “I don’t want to go over there.”

Privacy: Her mother, Sarah Forrest, instead ushered Lela to a more secluded hot-pink room in the back used for private parties. Lela sat in front of a large mirror designed to look like a dressing room mirror in an old Hollywood movie. A disco ball hangs from the ceiling, which Lela watched spin as the stylist, Alysha Haniotes, gently combed out her curls.

Lela is on the autism spectrum, and her sensory needs have made getting a haircut a challenge. With incredibly sensitive hearing, the typical noises in a salon can be overwhelming. Scratchy clothing and zippers also bother her.

“Blow dryers are scary, but it’s mostly the time that it takes for sitting still,” Forrest said. “I wash her hair before we go and keep it wet, so that way we don’t have to do the whole wash and comb-out thing at the hair salon.”

There is a dearth of salons in Pittsburgh that specialize in serving children on the spectrum. The Autism Speaks website — one of the largest national autism advocacy organizations — lists just nine locations in Pennsylvania, all in the Philadelphia area. The closest to Pittsburgh is in Hudson, Ohio, nearly two hours away.

In most cases, parents in the Pittsburgh area either cut their children’s hair themselves, or rely on word of mouth or on web communities to find salon recommendations.

Growing awareness: That may be starting to change.

A few weeks ago, the Autism Society of Pittsburgh ran a training session for local stylists to learn how to cut the hair of girls with autism.

“We had a video of a guy crawling on the floor,” said Daniel Torisky, who founded the organization in 1967 in his living room. “These people were just busting their tails. And the kids, they wiggle, waggle all around.” He laughed. “Patience is the most important thing.”

Torisky has long recognized the challenges involved with children getting haircuts.

“Autism is itself absorbed,” he said. “Auto is I — and that’s exactly what that means. So here you are, sitting in a beauty shop, and they have a sheet around their neck. And here’s this guy or this gal coming at you with a stupid comb, and then you see scissors and they’re sharp.”

The video features stylist James Williams, aka “Jim the Trim,” who is perhaps the most famous barber for children with autism. He founded Autism Barbers Assemble in the United Kingdom a few years ago, and videos of him crawling around his spacious salon to cut the hair of children with autism have circulated on the internet.

“Instead of trying to make them enter my world, I enter theirs,” he said in a Skype interview to a reporter. “The primary thing is that I don’t try to put them in the chair. If they want to sit in the chair, fine. But if you make them stay in the chair they feel trapped, and then they can’t do anything and it freaks them out. Work around the shop; it doesn’t matter. Let them sit on the floor, whatever works for them.”

Building trust: Mostly though, Williams encourages barbers working with children with autism to allow for a lot of time. He takes an hour with each client to build trust, making a haircut an event to enjoy rather than a thing to push out of the way as quickly as possible.

“It’s about sitting down with them and trying to become their friend,” he said. “Show the comb in your hand, on your head, and then ask them to do it. Sometimes they hold my hand when I have the scissors so they understand what it’s like.”

Back at Sharkey’s salon in Robinson, the Forrests said they had a relatively easy time finding places to cut Lela’s hair after working with their older child, Aiden, who is also on the spectrum. When he was younger, Forrest cut his hair herself. Eventually, she found Sharkey’s close to her home; she popped in alone one morning after work to talk to the stylists about their resources and approach.

“It turned out that Alysha worked on Sundays and mostly worked by herself,” Forrest said. “There are no other hair dryers running, there are no other kids crying; it’s mostly just her.”

Word spreads: The stylists at Sharkey’s give haircuts to many children with autism. After a few parents like Sarah stopped in to see how it would go, word has spread throughout the autism community.

“We have a lot of clients with autism,” said Elisha Trainer, Sharkey’s manager. “Before an appointment, we ask the parents what triggers anything for them and then work around that. We might not put a cape on them or whatever it is that triggers them to get upset.”

The stylists at Sharkey’s also stress building relationships with their clients. Like Jim the Trim, they allot extra time for children on the spectrum and explain the steps of the haircut in greater detail.

“I haven’t been trained in a specific way to style their hair, no,” Trainer said, almost surprised at the question. “You just begin to naturally adapt to their needs.”

Growing up: Diagnosed with autism 18 months ago, Lela Forrest attends a special school, has behavioral support and cannot sit still for long.

As she approaches her teenage years, she’s becoming more interested in her appearance.

“She loves pink,” Forrest said, gesturing to her headphones. “She’s definitely a girly girl in that way. Unicorns, pink, horses, the full nine.”

A few days prior to her Starkey’s haircut, Lela chopped off the front of her hair herself over the trash can.

“She got into my makeup and the first thing she asked was, ‘Do I look pretty?’ “ Forrest said, laughing. “She’s certainly getting to that stage.”

At the end of her haircut, Lela examined herself in the mirror. Haniotes had braided the front of her hair, clipping it to the side with colored barrettes.

“Ah, heavenly,” Lela said, smelling the ends of her hair and sighing dramatically, sounding something like an old-time shampoo commercial.

Afterward, Forrest and Lela headed for Cold Stone Creamery next door, the customary treat for Lela whenever she gets a haircut. Her headphones nestled into her waves of blond hair. Hair which was shorter and curlier than when she walked into the shop half an hour before.