How to cater to children and adults with additional needs

Craig Henderson of Craig’s Barber Shop in Bolton, shares all about his experience working with clients who have additional needs, as well as a guide to adjusting your own behaviour in a salon or barber shop 

“My experience of providing a welcoming environment for all started off with me working with a nursery. A Facebook post had been shared asking for a barber, which someone tagged me in, so I reached out to the nursery. When I arrived, I was informed that all the children had additional needs and had bad experiences of having their hair cut previously. It can be challenging, so I cut the caretaker’s hair to demonstrate the process, then just sat down on the floor to be at the children’s level. From there, it all escalated! I’ve since won accolades at the Beyond Business Awards and The Collective Pride Awards, which resulted in a secondary school getting in touch asking me to do some desensitisation work with them as well.” 

“Every person deserves a haircut, regardless of who they are. You can’t judge anybody – we’re a community service, ultimately. I run a gender neutral barber shop and cut hair for everyone; I’ve had clients who might be in a wheelchair or have severe autism. With one client, I cut their hair at a bus stop using cordless clippers because they liked buses and felt more comfortable being there.” 

“For any hair professionals looking to be more inclusive, you need to build on your own confidence first. Get comfortable and also be willing to educate your staff. Sensory rooms are a good idea, but it’s also an approach that can end up segregating children when the aim is to keep them in the typical work dynamics of a salon or barber shop. With my shop, I give children the chance to arrive early so they can smell the wax, hear the clippers or the hair dryer going. It’s important to meet them before the appointment and build a rapport, but also be willing to do their hair wherever they see fit. They are all their own person, and they have their own personality like we do! Everyone deserves a chance, and it’s so special to see them and their parents or guardian after they have had a hair cut. Some parents have cried!” 

“You also need to be willing to sacrifice your time. I don’t charge the parents if I don’t manage to cut the children’s hair that day, but it is hard work when you’re rolling on the floor or bending in strange positions. Work with a few clients first to build your confidence, but remember it’s not about your ego, it’s about the children (or adults) and their additional needs. Take that bold step: you might only manage to cut a small piece of hair, but that’s a huge win for them.” 

Craig’s top five tips on catering for clients with additional needs

Tip one: Be prepared. People with additional needs aren’t your neuro-typical clients you interact with on a daily basis. They can be more challenging, so make sure to allocate enough time to provide the service – between 45 – 60 minutes for an appointment (that’s if you do appointments).

Tip two: Make sure you have plenty of resources, such as fidgets, action cards, chalk markers and spare equipment, such as lots of combs in different shapes and colours. I also have an old pair of clippers with the blade dulled, and the same with a pair scissors to let client feel and familiarise themselves with the equipment I use. This helps them to understand it’s not going to hurt them. The action cards help the non-verbal autistic clients or deaf clients, so they can express how they are feeling and you can explain the process. 

Tip three: Be understanding and try and take things at their level. From the outset, clients with additional needs more than likely won’t want to be sat in the chair to start. It’s about desensitising them to the anxiety-inducing environment of a working hair establishment and its unfamiliar elements – the smell of products, different noises and everything that happens in the shop. To start, they can begin by having their hair done in the waiting area, on the bench outside or at the bus stop. Talk to them at their level and praise them, even if you just manage to comb their hair as that can be a huge step in letting their guard down. Do not restrain them in any way, as this will cause distress and discomfort.

Tip four: Speak to the parents or the person’s guardians to understand their previous experiences, any sensory difficulties they may face, or if there are any adaptations needed. Also, ask them to bring a spare change of clothes too, as 90 per cent of the time they won’t want to or feel comfortable wearing a gown or even a towel. Don’t forget to also have baby wipes in stock for clean up, as well as lollies, fruit or vegetables for rewards that can incentivise and make the experience less stressful.

Tip five: Remember to speak to other members of staff. Communication with your peers is key, as most of the time children will be curious and wander around the shop wanting to touch and look at things, or be in other people’s personal space. Inform your colleagues that you have an additional needs appointment coming up and to ask them to be understanding, as well as requesting they speak to their client too. In a barber shop, it can be a very male-dominated environment, so bad language and banter can be normal practice, but this can offend the parents and the child. Therefore, ask them to speak to their client and have some respect during this window.

“In the shop, remember music is background noise; it’s not mean to be a rave! Sound can be a big sensory trigger for non neuro-typical clients, so be patient and non-judgmental. Most importantly, be willing to make sacrifices – during a visit you may not actually manage to do of the service that was booked and you can’t expect to charge the parents for your time on this occasion, but it’s a huge WIN if you have them in the shop. Once you conquer that first step, maybe next time you can comb their hair.”

“It takes time to work with people with additional needs; it usually takes around six visits before you get to achieve a haircut. Sometimes you do it on first, second or even third attempt, so even if you cut a small amount of the fringe or the nape on the first visit, it is a win too. All the small changes can have a huge impact on the clients’ life but, I strongly advise you work on your scissor work, rather than using clippers. Opting for clipper work can take a lot longer to build up trust, so be prepared to do a grade two back and sides with scissors. It is possible, so get practising!” 

Follow Craig’s journey > 

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