Barbershops and hair salons aren’t typically synonymous with stress, but for many children with sensory sensitivities, they actually are. A 20-minute haircut for a child with autism or sensory processing challenges can be a torturously agonizing experience. For them, not only are the bright lights and the buzzing snipping sounds of electric clippers and hair-cutting shears daunting, but the constant touch of a draped cape and incessant tapping and pulling from a technician’s comb and fingers can be scary—even painful. What’s worse, scenarios like these are typically unpredictable for the child: without prior warning, the services tend to happen behind the head in those “blind spots” that aren’t visible to them when looking in the mirror, so they are often met with lots of anxiety, kicking and screaming by the little one; and tons of guilt and incessant apologizing for guilt-ridden parents.
But Black Shears Barber Shop, a Black-owned sensory-friendly salon in Louisville, Kentucky, is changing that.
Owned by master barber and loctician Tiphanee Lee, Black Shears addresses the discomfort that children with autism or unusual sensory responses might have with getting their haircut in a friendly, sensory-inclusive space. Inspired by her son – he was diagnosed with non-verbal autism at two years old, a developmental condition that affects communication and behavior that made simple tasks like cutting his hair quite difficult, so she transformed her home office into a comfortable setting for him, complete with dim, blue lighting—she used the comfortable salon experience she designed at home as a blueprint for her business.
Opened in April of last year, Black Shears is outfitted with calming sensory lights, geometric shapes on walls to keep young minds engaged, noise-cancellation headphones, weighted blankets to manage sudden movements and sensory bins filled with feathers and fidget toys to help them communicate their emotions and remain relaxed.
Research published by the American Occupational Therapy Association has shown that children with autism or sensory processing challenges tend to demonstrate atypical sensory responses (for example, over-response or under-response) to touch and auditory stimulation, so it’s no surprise something others might consider a simple experience—like getting a haircut —can involve pretty much everything that is terrifying to a sensory-sensitive child. A “light touch” can dominate the experience, which can cause them to go into “fight or flight” mode. This means their heart rates increase, their pals may become sweaty and they go into defense mode, which may involve hitting, kicking, screaming or more, depending on the child. In addition, experts say that noises and auditory experiences also play a huge role in haircuts because our auditory system is a “survival system” that alerts us to potential dangers before we can even see or touch them.
That said, it is a prime candidate for making haircuts extremely tough for kids with sensitivity to noise, especially in a new environment, so Lee ensures her staff is trained in the latest, most effective techniques that promise successful experiences while mitigating the possibility of unbearable sensory ordeals.
The team at Black Shears is proficient in knowing when to refrain from using certain tools that might impose excessive sensitivity to the skin as well as navigating sound management with equipment like noisy clippers and hand-held or overhead hairdryers. In addition to haircuts, they offer a variety of natural hair services for their clients with special needs, such as braiding and locs, so they also make it a point to describe a product’s texture before applying it to their client’s hair. There are also occupational therapy practitioners on-site to assist clients and their parents with the extra therapy they might need at no cost during sensory-friendly services. They also do not impose strict timelines on the services: “It could take maybe an hour or an hour and a half,” Lee shares in an interview with WLKY, a local, CBS-affiliated television station in Louisville. She explains how comfort and reassurance trump the assembly line-type pressures of churning out high daily volumes of clients. “…but we plan to make this happen for these parents.”
Now seven years old, Lee’s son is proud that his mom is creating a new normal in their community and opening doors to a safe space where inclusion is in their hearts and their craft. Lee is also breaking barriers as a female barber-turned-business owner who is striving in a male-dominated industry.
When asked what’s next for Black Shears, Lee expresses plans to expand: “I hope to have Black Shears Barber Shop in a few states,” she said. “I want to make this a franchise business and have everyone in the world be able to have the opportunity to get their child’s hair cut in a sensory-friendly environment.”