From Haircuts to Movies, Businesses Reach Out to Autism Families

Some go a surprising extra mile for families of autism kids.

Oct. 21, 2009— -- 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.

"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.'"

Ross met with Dan Harris, who, at the time, was the manager at the AMC Columbia Mall 14 in Columbia, Md., to discuss the possibility of renting a theater after hours for one night in order to let families with autistic children enjoy a night out. Harris went one step further -- he set up a special screening time for the families and only charged them normal admission. Together with help from their local Autism Society chapter, the movie screening became a reality.

"I really didn't know what the turnout was going to be like," he said. "But in the end, we had 300 people show up for it. Talking with the families coming in, we realized that we had something special."

The special showings have been taking place once a month since that first show in November 2007. Ross said her daughter, who after her experience with "Hairspray" was too scared to even enter a movie theater, now looks forward to the screenings. She said that as a result, Meaghan has gotten comfortable enough in a movie theater that she can now also sit through an entire show of a public movie screening.

As for the "Sensory Friendly Films" program, as it has come to be known, 81 AMC theaters across the country now feature special screenings for special needs children – a fact that still impresses Harris.

"I had no idea at that point it would expand that much," he said. "Just over the past 13 to 14 months it's grown eightfold."

Programs that accommodate kids with autism are not just haircuts and movies. Some restaurants around the country now feature special "family dinner" nights for families whose children have autism. Dental visits, like trips the hair salon, can pose challenges for some parents and their autistic children; as a result, Autism Speaks is also exploring a partnership with Colgate to disseminate information to help these visits go more smoothly.

A number of companies also offer special business cards to parents of autistic children. If their child is disruptive in a public setting, the parent can hand out the cards, each of which is printed with a brief description of what autism is and why their child is acting out.

More Businesses Opening Arms to Autism

Massachusetts General Hospital participates in a program called Autism Escapes, where private jet owners donate flights so that children with autism can travel to distant clinics for treatment -- something that is usually very difficult because the kids have a hard time staying still long enough for long car rides or staying quiet enough for commercial flights.

And Walt Disney World also caters to families with autistic children by offering them special passes that allow them to skip long waits in crowded lines.

"More and more businesses are recognizing this and creating opportunities to make their products or services available to the autism community," Bell said.

For the companies involved, it is good business. Not only do these businesses reap the positive PR from these efforts, but they also build brand loyalty with the families who seek their services.

In many cases, these accommodations also foster integration – an important aspect of the Snip-Its services, said Joanna Meiseles, who was president of the Snip-Its at the time the company began to develop ways to help families with autistic kids.

"I think that integration is an aspect that is very important," she said. "We are not hiding special needs children. It is so hard for parents with autistic kids to go out with them in public, so non-special needs children never really see special needs kids. I think it is good for them."

Dr. Wayne Fisher, director of the Center for Autism Spectrum Disorders at the Munroe-Meyer Institute, agreed. He said the integrative aspect of these events is good for the kids as well.

"When theatres, museums, churches and restaurants set up times when children with autism are specifically welcomed to their establishments... this sets up learning opportunities for the children with autism to learn the behaviors that are and are not appropriate for a given social event," he said. "Parents can correct inappropriate behaviors and teach appropriate ones in a comfortable environment without feeling like they have to leave the first time their child displays an inappropriate behavior."

Integration or Separation?

By and large, autism experts agreed that the programs are a good thing, both for the children involved and their families.

"We all need a time when we can be ourselves," said Wendy Stone, a clinician and researcher at the Vanderbilt Kennedy Center Treatment and Research Institute for Autism Spectrum Disorders (TRIAD). "For some of us it might mean going to a casual restaurant instead of a formal one, or wearing jeans and a T-shirt to spend time at a friend's house after a day at work. For children with autism it might be getting to see a movie in a theater that sells popcorn or sitting at a table in a restaurant and ordering from a menu."

Dr. Michael Wasserman, a pediatrician at the Ochsner Clinic Foundation and Hospital in New Orleans, La., said, "Providing these children with an environment in which they can thrive is always desirable. The businesses described are performing a public service."

But, he added, "At the same time, a long term view of not always isolating these children from their typical peers should be maintained. The public health view over the last decades has been to be inclusive for those with special needs, and care to strike a balance between special needs and 'mainstreaming' should be considered."

But sometimes even programs that set aside "special" events for special needs kids can act as a bridge to other public activities later on. Carin Yavorcik, spokeswoman for the Autism Society said that like Ross, many other parents may find that the AMC movie program lets kids with autism take become more familiar with certain public situations – and thus be more prepared to deal with them again in the future.

"For people who are affected by autism, it can often be very isolating for them," she said. "So this provides a really great opportunity for people to go out together and do something normal for a change."

For Ursitti, the very fact that some businesses are reaching out to parents like her makes a big difference.

"I think that shows a kind of attitude from businesses that recognizes that there is a large population of people on the spectrum who need these services," she said. "They need to have their hair cut; they need to be able to walk in the world and have these services. They're stepping up, and it's great."

Courtney Hutchison contributed to this report.