See how a 'sensory-inclusive' salon makes haircuts easier for kids with autism

"It's very important to be able to be a beacon of hope for those families."

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By Kerry Breen

Charlotte Paine has two sons with sensory issues, and she used to cut their hair while they slept because getting a professional haircut was such an ordeal.

Then she found Barber's Blueprints, a New York City hair salon that says it is the first to become certified "sensory-inclusive" by an organization devoted to serving people with autism. Now Paine and her children, ages 8 and 9, get haircuts without fear.

"They enjoy it, you know?" Paine said. "They're fond of going to a barbershop to be able to go get a haircut. Our children get that now too ... It's nice that they can have that experience, the same as every other kid."

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Barber's Blueprints co-owner Arthur Ishakov said the salon is a "dynamic place" with lots of noise.

"You have the blow dryers, music, people talking," he said. "It's a very intensive environment for a child with autism ... Generally, any person who has a sensory disability is a person whose sense of touch, smell, feel becomes heightened to a point where it becomes painful."

Alena Ishakov, Arthur's wife and the co-owner of the shop, said they decided to make the salon sensory-inclusive after becoming parents four years ago.

"I think that we as parents, we all have the same hopes and dreams for our children, which is to be accepted, to be loved, for all their dreams to come true," she said. "And so for me it's very important to be able to be a beacon of hope for those families, to say that things are changing."

Zoe Gross, the director of operations at the Autistic Self Advocacy Network, agreed that a hair salon can be an intense place for a child with autism or a sensory disability.

"Autistic people and others with sensory processing issues can find experiences that are routine and easy for others to be painful sensory minefields," Gross said. "There are many other aspects to a traditional haircut that many autistic people find very challenging from a sensory perspective, such as sitting for a long time with wet hair, loud appliances like hairdryers, scented products, etc., that all compound to make it a difficult experience for a lot of autistic children and adults."

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Alena Ishakov reached out to Kulture City, a company that works to make spaces accessible to those with sensory processing disorders.

Alena Ishakov said the Kulture City certification and training program is developed by behaviorists, medical physicians, and other experts. It allows clients to get an understanding of what autism and different types of autism may look like. The program ends with what Arthur Ishakov called an "intensive" test.

One thing he learned, Arthur Ishakov said, is how to assess a situation where a child may be experiencing sensory overload. While that's rare at Barber's Blueprint, it happens.

"First you approach the subject, and you ask them if they're doing OK," Arthur said. "If they're responsive, you take it from there. But if not, you just have to kind of give them their space, you know? And if there are other people around that don't know what's happening, it's always better to address to them that this person might be having sensory overload, and to just remain calm."

Clients can also book directly through Kulture City, or ask for a sensory-inclusive experience when making appointments.

Arthur Ishakov said that when these clients come in, he does everything he can to put them at ease.

"Generally, when they come in, I'll try to talk to them," he explained. "I'll show them my tools.... We try to talk a little bit, and try to get to know each other, so the child feels more comfortable."

During these appointments, music volume in the salon is lowered, and blow dryers and straight razors are not used. If a client ever becomes uncomfortable, Arthur said that they are happy to accommodate them at another time.

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Dr. Kerry Magro, a professional speaker and author on the autism spectrum, said that it's important for families to have a space that feels safe for them.

"Many families with kids with special needs see the stares, hear the talk behind their backs about why the kid is, quote-unquote 'acting that way,'" he said. "To have a space where they are welcomed and accepted is super, super beneficial."

Alena Ishakov said she is so eager to spread the message of inclusivity that she doesn't mind if people just stop into the salon to take a break from the hustle and bustle of New York City.

"You don't have to get a haircut," she said. "It's not about that. I want it to be a safe place for people to come in and say 'I need a minute.' New York is like a concrete jungle. Everything here is so noisy. It's too much for me, sometimes, honestly."

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