8 Ways To Make Your Salon Autism-Friendly

Published 02nd May 2024 by chloe

Something so familiar and ordinary for many – a haircut – can be an ordeal for autistic clients. 

An encouraging number of hairdressers are beginning to understand this and adapt their salon to be more autism-friendly, such as #BADHAIR in Somerset that HJ spoke to recently and many others that you can search for here. These specialised salons have proved life-changing for many clients, not only allowing them to feel calm throughout their appointment but also making improvements in their disorder long-term.

At this stage, it isn’t possible to open an autism-friendly salon in every town, however, there are small changes we can all make that go an unexpectedly long way. 

Here, Tom Purser, head of guidance, volunteering and campaigns at the National Autistic Society, about the importance of understanding autism in salons.

8 Ways To Make Your Salon Autism-Friendly

  • “The client may want to come in and watch at first, familiarise themselves with you and the environment, then the next time to sit in the chair and so on. Reassure them that they can talk to you at any time and ask you to stop if needed,” explains Tom.
  • Allow longer appointment times for these clients, and when you can, offer times when the salon is normally quieter.
  • Treat each client uniquely, familiarise yourself with any personal strategies they may have or any typical reactions they may give. Reading information about autism is an invaluable step, to ensure you understand what you’re doing to help.
  • Many autistic individuals have sensory issues. Being able to adjust the music volume, offer unscented products and/or allow the client to bring their products from home. When using a comb or brush, it is useful to demonstrate on yourself first what you will do, then allow them to try it themselves.
  • Be malleable and be prepared to mix things up. Some clients may prefer a dry cut if the hair washing process is too much pressure, or some may not want to wear a gown. Be prepared to sit on the floor and cut their hair if need be.
  • Be vocal with your actions, unexpected touches can cause further anxiety for the client. Announcing what you’re doing, and how long the appointment will last. And be clear, keep instructions and questions minimal and straightforward.
  • If you have a child with autism in your chair, know that children find clippers very distressing, so when you can, try to avoid using them. Let them choose if they want to use them, and if so, which ones.
  • Be creative, make up a game. “Social stories (storyboards) are an excellent tool for familiarising the client with the process, seeing what will happen is really helpful. Make sure to share the storyboard on your website or social media channel so customers can easily access it,” says Tom.

A Client's Perspective

We also spoke to Karen Barker, the Mother of her autistic son Harry, to learn about his experience and journey towards tolerating haircuts. Together, we hope to bring some valuable advice to light.

Does your son find the hairdressers to be a particularly overwhelming and distressing experience?

“At first, absolutely. We weren’t entirely sure if it was the sound of the clippers or the feeling of the hair trimmings on his skin, but he would battle and cry before and during the appointment, or even if we walked past the shop. A trim that should’ve taken 10 to 15 minutes would take us anywhere between 30 and 45 minutes,” explains Karen.

You said ‘at first’, was there a turning point?

“By chance, the owner’s wife of our local hairdressers worked with children with special needs. She offered to create a social story for Harry, which explained the importance of a haircut, how the hair will grow back and that any discomfort he feels is only temporary. At the end, it shows him receiving a reward (one that should be personal to each child). So, for Harry, it was a bag of his favourite sweets. There were also pictures of the salon, including the chair he’d be sitting in and the scissors and razors they’d use. He took this home and sat flicking through it, and this was the real game-changer for him," says Karen.

What do you think hairdressers should know about cutting the hair of autistic clients? How can hairdressers make the experience less overwhelming?

“The owner of our hairdressers said to bring Harry in a few times before they tried cutting his hair, so I’d bring him in once a week after school to say hello to the staff and sit in the chair. They also made sure they cut Harry’s hair after everyone else had gone home, which was so lovely of them. This reduced the volume of the salon massively and therefore the amount of sensory overload Harry would have to endure. It completely depends on the individual. But, making them feel like it’s completely normal and acceptable that they find it difficult. Asking them, ‘how can I make this easier for you?’ goes a long way," explains Karen.

What salon adaptations could make the space more autism-friendly?

“If possible, a private room for these clients would be helpful. Then they aren’t worried about anyone looking or hearing them if they do get distressed. An easy change to make would also be to have a box of fidget toys available, as these are a great distraction for autistic individuals. Plus, being able to adjust the music or radio in the salon, or even turn it off if that’s what the client would like. Any way to make it more tolerable for them is key,” Karen offers.

As a parent, how does the experience impact you, and how would a more catered experience help?

“It’s really difficult to watch and to feel as though you’re inflicting this upon your child. But there are times, especially in the summer, when long hair can be really uncomfortable for them. Plus, we want them to look smart but not at the cost of their wellbeing, it’s really tricky,” Karen explains. “Having somebody with a bit of understanding made all the difference for us, she’d ask Harry what he wanted to bring with him – which was his Ipad – and allowed us to change him into a spare change of clothes immediately after the appointment to reduce the feeling of loose hair on his skin. And just being really open and clear with him, explaining what she was about to do and what he could expect helped to put him more at ease."

How is Harry now?

“Nowadays, Harry is even able to have his hair cut at home by his Dad. He sits in front of the mirror on his iPad, and he doesn’t love it, but he doesn’t battle anymore and we can finish in 10 to 15 minutes. He doesn’t cry, he doesn’t get upset, the whole experience has completely changed for us,” Karen finishes. Something I’m sure every parent of an autistic child would love to be able to say, and something that you can be a part of. Of course, this is only one experience and we understand each client will be completely individual. “Autistic people represent a huge part of our society – around 1 in 100 people in the UK. It’s important that autistic children, adults and their families have the opportunity to go to the hairdressers, just like anyone else,” says Tom. Hopefully, this advice can act as your first stepping stone towards adapting your salon to be autism-friendly and most importantly, making a real difference for these clients long term. Here's how you can make your salon a disability-friendly business! 

Recent Study

A recent study by software provider Vagaro highlighted the presence of neurodivergence within the beauty industry and emphasised the importance of technology in making accommodations for clients. Suggestions such as online booking systems, digital check-ins, and automated reminders help reduce factors that can contribute to overstimulation. An online booking system with visual aids and clear descriptions can help when scheduling appointments, while a digital check-in app relieves the social pressure for those who would prefer to bypass the front desk on appointment arrival. Digital client forms can also be beneficial so they can complete then in their own time. 



Published 02nd May 2024

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