Worcester barber working to train hair stylists how to cut hair for clients with sensory issues

WORCESTER, Mass. — For many parents, taking their kids to get a haircut is no big deal, but for children with autism or sensory issues, it’s stressful and scary.

A barber in Worcester is working to change that. He’s partnered with a non-profit organization to train other stylists how to cut hair for kids who are autistic.

For six-year-old Luca Carota who has autism and is nonverbal, it’s been a climb to get to the point where he can sit calmly in a barber’s chair.

“I’m so proud of you,” Justin Pitz, the owner of Axe to Grind barber shop in Worcester, told Luca.

Luca was 18 months old when he went for his first haircut.

“It was pretty awful,” said Ashley Carota, Luca’s mom. “They took about three people to hold him down and it was a lot of tears and crying. So we kind of just left.”

Ashley tried again six months later, and after the same result—she wanted to give up—until she ran into Justin Pitz on Shrewsbury Street in Worcester and gave him a shot.

“You shouldn’t judge a book by its cover,” said Pitz. “And just because somebody looks a certain way doesn’t mean that they act a certain way. And, you know, everybody’s different, including me.”

Justin worked with other children who had sensory issues—and did whatever it took, whether it was cutting their hair on the sidewalk outside or laying down.

“I had thought I had figured it out,” said Pitz. “Turns out I didn’t. You know, you do nine months of barber school, a thousand hours. You know how many hours they teach about kids with special needs? Zero. Nothing.”

That’s where salon-owner Kate Owens Heins comes in. Her son was diagnosed with autism in 2016 and her family also struggled at salons.

“I found that unacceptable for my industry and we opened my salon for a sensory safe space five years ago, and from there I found people driving two and a half, three hours one way just to get a haircut,” said Kate Owens Heins, the CEO and Founder of the Sensory Safe Solution. “And I knew we could do more.”

Kate started the non-profit Sensory Safe Solution with a mission: to show barbers and salon professionals how to accommodate individuals with autism. The CDC reported 1 in 150 children were diagnosed with autism in 2000. In twenty years, it’s increased to 1 in 36.

“So the days of if you have an individual with autism in your chair are over,” said Owens Heins. “Now it’s just when. And from what we’re seeing, the numbers are just increasing. And so our knowledge needs to increase also.”

There are 75 trained industry professionals through the Sensory Safe Solution program, and Justin is actually one of the trainers, and his goal is to provide a safe and happy experience for all of his clients.

“I’ve been able to turn my most difficult haircuts into like the most rewarding,” said Pitz.

It’s taken a few visits for Luca to be this calm, but his mother says he loves getting his haircut

“He started speaking about a year ago, and, like, one of the first things he said, he was like Justin haircut,” said Carota.

Justin is hoping he can share his knowledge with as many stylists as possible to make sure everyone has a good experience and is treated fairly.

“What really fills my heart is like doing this and watching his parents like a little sigh of relief saying, okay, that’s one less thing we have to worry about,” said Pitz.

“There are amazing people out there who are going to accept your child for who they are,” said Carota. “And your kid deserves a great haircut.”

For a database of stylists trained through the Sensory Safe Solution, click here.

This is a developing story. Check back for updates as more information becomes available.

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