McALLEN — Jesiah Ramirez, 5, sits in a barber chair squeezing a squishy toy in each hand. Clippers buzz as hair from the side of his head falls onto the colorful smock over his clothes.
Alexia Saenz, co-owner of a new sensory-friendly salon, attempts to keep his focus blowing bubbles — anything to keep his mind off the haircut.
Months ago, Jesiah wouldn’t stay on the chair for more than five minutes, said his mother Cassandra Ramirez.
Sounds or certain touches are triggers for her twin boys, she said. Her sons were diagnosed with autism when they were 2 and haircuts have always been a challenge.
The buzzing, clipping and the activity near and on the head could cause them to negatively react or want to leave the chair, she said.
“I thought, ‘will it always be like this? Will it get better?’” Ramirez asked thinking back to times her sons cried during a haircut.
She took her sons to various salons but they weren’t conducive to kids with sensory sensitivities, she said.
Chemical smells of hair dye and the long lines can overwhelm those on the autism spectrum, said Saenz, who worked for three years as a speech therapist. Also, ordinary salons are rushing to get customers in and out. Ramirez recalled instances where the only way barbers thought to deal with her boys was holding them down in the chair.
“Many of my patients’ parents were struggling to find a place willing to provide accommodations for their kids,” Saenz said.
Before becoming a physical therapist, Saenz received her cosmetology license in high school. She used to work at her mother’s shop through college.
About eight months ago, she offered to help Ramirez with the twins. Since Saenz’s mother has a busy business, she told Ramirez to come after hours.
“At first … they would cry and scream,” Saenz said. “Eventually, they started becoming more comfortable with it.”
Saenz opened Au-some Cuts on Monday in McAllen, where she now works full time.
“I decided to combine my knowledge and skills to create a sensory-friendly hair salon,” she said.
Saenz’s strategies come from her experience at the rehab clinic. Because there is a lot going on during a haircut, they could easily be flooded by the stimuli.
“Everything is so overwhelming, I feel like visual distractions work a lot because you get their attention,” she said. “There is an engagement going on.”
While a stylist cuts his hair, Saenz is talking to Jesiah. At first, she has some large flashcards that immediately prove ineffective. She moves on to something else.
Saenz blows bubbles, and then tells Jesiah to do the same.
When he shows the slightest flare of irritation, she’s attentive and ready to distract.
At one point, Jesiah is amused by throwing one of his toys to which she retrieves and gently tosses back.
Saenz said they adapt to the client. If they need a quieter space, there is a private room in the back. If they’d prefer to sit on something soft versus the chair, they have beanbags. And if they want to move around, then they’ll follow them, she said.
“Wherever they’re comfortable, we can give them the haircut,” Saenz said.
As Jesiah gets his haircut with relatively no fuss, his mom looks on with appreciation for the space created in consideration of the needs of families like hers.
For Ramirez, seeing her sons’ progress gives her hope for their futures.
“It’s not that big, scary thing anymore to him,” Ramirez said. “He’s still sensitive to the sound, but he can tolerate it and that’s what matters.
“It means a lot.”