Finding a safe public space for a child with special needs is a great feeling for a parent. At times, trying to find that space can be difficult, especially when it comes to haircuts. At salons not educated in working with children with special needs, it can be a traumatic experience for both the child and the parent and multiple attempts are made before the right salon is found.
When parents and children come to Locks & Tots Salon in Mesa, the first visit changes their perspective about salons; they are greeted with a non-conventional-looking salon space. It has a play area with toys, a small table for coloring, a television, and a Wii for kids to play with while their parent gets a haircut. In addition to their family-friendly environment, Locks and Tots has what they call a Sensory Room—a private space for children and adults with special needs to get their haircut.
Locks and Tots co-founders and owners, husband and wife Mark and Cheryl Cristiano, did their first haircut in December 2015 right before opening the salon with the hope to give children with special needs a place where they could get their haircut without the difficulties they may encounter at other salons.
The Mesa residents have different responsibilities: Mark handles the business aspects of running the salon, and Cheryl, an experienced hairstylist who has a master’s degree in cognitive sciences, draws on her experiences with her autistic son to help other parents and children have a positive haircut.
Cristiano said having a Sensory Room was the central part of opening Locks and Tots.
“I’ve never taken my son to a salon for a haircut because I can do that myself, but I have taken him to plenty of other public places and had horrifying experiences,” she said she would see other parents posting stories on Facebook about their experiences and she realized there was a demand for this type of service.
“I really feel passionately that these kids shouldn’t be overwhelmed getting the simplest thing done (like a haircut),” she said.
Besides working with children with autism, Cristiano has given haircuts to foster children, women with dementia, customers in wheelchairs, cancer patients, and children and adults with special needs. Although Cristiano works with a majority of autistic and foster children in the Sensory Room, Locks and Tots is also a full-service salon for kids and adults.
“In the Sensory Room, I often tell the parents, ‘It’s OK, you have to make him be normal for me,’ or ‘If she wants to sing through her haircut, she can sing.’ It’s OK, just relax mom and they’re just like, ‘Really?’ Because they’re always in this hyper state of trying to control their child and make their child be socially acceptable, so yes, I have had multiple parents crying in the Sensory Room because they suddenly felt safe.”
It’s all in the approach
When working with a child for the first time, Cristiano said her approach varies depending on their previous experiences and concerns.
“I get down at their level, welcome them to the salon. I invite them to play with my toys in the Sensory Room, I talk about my turtle (in the Sensory Room), so the turtle has been a huge draw…when we get into the Sensory Room I usually try to get a little information from the parents as to what the child’s past experiences have been like so I know how much damage I’m undoing or if it’s their first visit and I’m introducing them to a new routine they’ve never experienced before.”
In addition, Cristiano said she asks what their interests are, so she can direct the conversation during the haircut such as what shapes they like or singing songs, etc. She gives the child a choice of where to sit (a traditional hairdressing chair, or a few smaller, colorful choices) she talks to the turtle, gets toys out and the child picks out something— Cristiano said she treats them like a normal human being, she doesn’t talk over or command them, she negotiates with them.
Before starting the haircut, Cristiano lets them touch all the materials including the squirt bottle and they play with it, help them get their hair wet, gets their permission to spray their hair all the while reinforcing what a good job they’re doing by saying something like “Thank you for letting me get your hair wet.”
After this, the next step is to introduce them to the combs—Cristiano asks which color they want her to use and she works on approaching them in a way they feel comfortable. She works with them to overcome their sensitivities such as a dislike of scissors to help them have a positive experience getting their haircut.
“I constantly praise and constantly thank them for working hard for me,” Cristiano said. “Because I know they’re working twice as hard as I am, so I don’t surprise them with anything, and I reinforce when they’re doing a good job and I give them their space when they get overwhelmed.”
Cristiano said they follow up every haircut by letting the child choose a toy out of the treasure chest. She said she invites parents to take pictures of the Sensory Room and the experience so they can reinforce what a good job their child did so hopefully their next visit is easier and they keep remembering Locks and Tots.
“I want the kids to feel accomplished because they can do it, so even if they can’t verbally say ‘I did it,’” Cristiano said of her hope for children who she gives haircuts to.
Phoenix resident Angelica Quezada has been taking her 15-year-old son Anthony to the Sensory Room since October 2016 and has had multiple haircuts since then at the salon. After many failed attempts of getting Anthony a nice haircut and the difficulty of getting someone to have patience with him, Quezada thought it couldn’t hurt to try Locks and Tots.
Quezada said it was difficult for Anthony to sit in the chair at first, but by using a weighted vest, snacks and drinks, they were able to get him through his first haircut with Cristiano.
“It was a success after finding a way to engage him; using snacks is usually a winner for Anthony,” Quezada said, adding that Anthony’s haircuts have gotten progressively better each time. Cristiano began using scissors and can now use clippers as well. She said Anthony sits most of the time and enjoys his snacks while looking out the window.
“He’s a people watcher and this helps him feel like he is not missing a thing while he gets his haircut,” Quezada said.
Cristiano said it can take between four and six visits with tougher cases until the child feels comfortable with her. She said though having a haircut may seem simple, it adds to both the child’s and the parent’s quality of life by being able to have a haircut in a safe space where the child can be themselves without judgment from other people in a salon.
“I’ve had parents on their first visit cry because they didn’t know their kid could get a haircut without crying,” she said.
Quezada added: “The customer service from all the staff make you feel like family. They understand the needs of my son and I while we are there. Cheryl really goes out of her way to ensure we both are comfortable with the environment (puts on TV show or movie of his interest, provides toy to help with his stress) before she begins cutting his hair and is pleased with the haircut/style.”
In addition to the Sensory Room, Locks and Tots is a full-service salon that offers haircuts and color, pedicures, manicures, facials, massages and waxing.
Mesa resident Sara Amador and her children have visited Locks and Tots and utilized their services including haircuts, trims, manicures and pedicures. Amador said she had her hair done at another salon and did not like the results. She drove by the salon and decided to check it out; after speaking to one of the staff, she made an appointment. Since January this year, Amador has gotten her hair done three times and brought her girls in for trims, manicures and pedicures.
“I think that Locks and Tots is one of the most people-friendly salons there is,” Amador said. “I’d recommend Locks and Tots to anyone and everyone. The staff is friendly and helpful and informative. In my opinion Locks and Tots is one of the best family salons out there. I’ll be a forever customer. I can’t stress enough how great it is there.”
This family-friendly approach stems from the Cristianos’ vision to have all people feel welcome in their salon—whether it’s for a haircut, pedicure or massage.
“It’s one thing to stand out and be the weirdo or the freak and have everybody looking at you because you’re strange,” Cristiano said. “But I believe they should look as socially appropriate as possible so a good haircut helps them fit into society a little bit better and helps parents look forward to the school picture.”
One of the many parents who can speak to the impact Locks and Tots has had on their child’s and their family’s quality of life, Quezada said her experience has changed her mind set in taking her son Anthony for haircuts.
“I don’t dread taking him for haircuts, feel embarrassed or angry that staff are unwilling or unable to cut his hair,” Quezada said. “I have also taken advantage of pampering myself with services while he is with me versus having to figure out when I can take care of myself. It’s like a son and mom date.”
When the child has had some appointments in the Sensory Room, Cristiano said her long-term goal is to graduate the children from getting haircuts in the Sensory Room to the regular salon to encourage growth.
“I would recommend Locks and Tots for the simple fact that Cheryl really puts her heart into her idea behind the haircut experience for persons with special needs,” Quezada said. “It relieves the stress of what that brings to my family while trying to have a ‘a typical family.’ Any opportunity I have to recommend Locks and Tots to the community I jump right on it.”
Locks and Tots Salon is located at 1107 S. Gilbert Road, Suite 112. To learn more, visit: LocksandTots.com.
– Mesa resident Alyssa Tufts is a freelance reporter for MyNewsMesa.com.