FARMINGTON — Many routine tasks people take for granted -- such as getting a haircut -- can seem almost impossible for individuals with sensory issues, such as those who fall on the autism spectrum.
The bustling sights, sounds and smells of a barbershop or salon can often be an overload of sensation for such individuals. So the New Mexico Autism Society of San Juan County partnered with a local salon to ease the haircutting process for autistic people.
Sarah Shelby is on the board for the local autism group. As the mother of a 12-year-old son with autism, she has experienced the sometimes excruciating process of getting her son's hair cut.
"For most people, going to get your hair cut is like taking a break. It's relaxing. But for people with autism, the laughter and chatter, along with the noise of the hairdryers and the sensation of the clipper vibrations can actually be painful," she said.
Often, Shelby tried to cut her son's hair at home to minimize the sensory overload, but she occasionally had to take him in for a professional cut.
"It used to take three or four people to hold him down while he'd get his hair cut, and it would just kill me every single time," she said. "He would just scream and scream, and it was so traumatic."
When it comes to minimizing anxiety during haircuts, Shelby said there aren't many choices for parents of autistic children. To find a solution, she approached several local hair salons and found one that agreed to partner with the New Mexico Autism Society of San Juan County.
Utopia Salon, located at 5150 College Blvd., will offer monthly Sensory Snip-Its haircuts starting Wednesday. Appointments for the cuts must be made through Shelby. Shelby said the program is the first in the state that offers these types of haircuts.
During a two-hour session, the salon will create a calm, quiet atmosphere and will only have two clients in at a time. Because it is difficult for those with autism to stay still for long periods of time, they will be allowed to get up and move around as needed, Shelby said.
Utopia Salon Manager Luca Giovannini said that when Shelby approached him about creating the haircutting sessions, he readily agreed.
"I used to have a salon in Durango, and there were several clients who had similar issues who would come in regularly to see me," said Giovannini, who moved to Farmington from Italy in 1996.
Giovannini said he and another stylist, Jessica Radojits, will be the only ones in the salon when the autistic clients come in, and the environment will be calm and music-free.
"I specialize in dry-cutting, so if they come in with clean hair, we can get the cut done very easily and quickly," he said.
Having the same stylists every time will also be comforting to those on the autism spectrum, Shelby said.
"They need routine, and the consistency of having the same people cut their hair every time is a big deal," she said.
Shelby said the New Mexico Autism Society of San Juan County meets quarterly to provide support to individuals with autism and their families and offers free events throughout the year. Although the society was established with the goal of focusing on autism, Shelby said other individuals with sensory issues or other special needs are also welcome.
"We don't turn anyone away," she said.