From Haircuts to Movies, Businesses Reach Out to Autism Families

PHOTO Judith Ursitti takes her autistic son Jack to a Snip-Its salon for a haircut (left) and Marianne Ross

Judith Ursitti was not the first parent to dread taking her child to get a haircut. After all, kids fidget. They protest. And most will not be content until the cape comes off, the loose hair is brushed away and the stylist hands them a piece of candy or gum.

But for Ursitti, the experience with her 6-year-old son, Jack, was far worse.

"It would just be such a tantrum – he would just fall apart," said Ursitti, who lives in Dover, Mass. "Jack just wouldn't have any of it – he was just fighting a clawing. Basically it always ended up being a headlock situation, where I would hold him down and tell the stylist to cut as quickly as possible.

 Video: Robot can read emotions and feelings of children with autism.

"We did manage to get a haircut, but never a good one. It was just so traumatic."

Doctors diagnosed Jack with autism four years ago. Ursitti said Jack today is considered to be on the severe end of the autism spectrum. And while he is making progress in communicating with others, there are still hurdles when it comes to certain activities – in many cases, activities that other families take for granted.

"Going into new places and transitioning into an environment where something unusual is going to happen is very, very difficult for children with autism," Ursitti said.

But today, a growing number of businesses are learning to make special accommodations for parents of children with autism. For Ursitti, a joint effort between the support and awareness group Autism Speaks, the salon chain Snip-Its and Melmark New England proved to be a godsend. Working together, the organizations developed a guide to help professionals and parents avoid some of the problems that arise when an autistic child gets a haircut. The principles of the guide are applied at Snip-Its, where Jack now gets his haircuts.

"There's something about that experience that really can be very challenging," said Peter Bell, executive vice president of Autism Speaks. "One part may be sitting still in a chair. Some of it also has to do with sensory issues – the clippers going close to the ears. All of these things really seem to interfere with a child with autism, and all of these things can be very harrowing for parents who want to get their child's hair cut.

"There's just a lot of tricks, so to speak, to make sure it's as pleasant and expedient as possible."

These "tricks" have now been incorporated into a brochure and a video to help parents and hairstylists. Today, Ursitti said Jack, who used to have to be taken into a back room to have his hair cut -- far away from the noise of hair dryers and the bright lights – can now have a haircut in the main area of the salon.

"Now he is able to sit in a regular chair with the cape on, sit patiently, and end up looking beautiful," she said.

A Night at the Movies for Kids With Autism

Marianne Ross of Elkridge, Md., had her own epiphany, seeing how one business could be more autism-friendly, in the summer of 2007. She and her daughter Meaghan, then 8 years old, were asked to leave a showing of "Hairspray" at a local movie theater.

"She jumps up and down and flaps her hands, as do many children on the autism spectrum," Ross said. "Some of the patrons got the manager and wanted to get Meaghan to leave.

"I thought, 'how unfair,'" she said. "It just made me think, 'There's got to be some way she can go to a movie.'"

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