With the drape of a cape, buzz of clippers and spin of the barber chair, a haircut can be stressful for those with autism who suffer from sensory sensitivity.
Frankel Antoine, 24, gives free haircuts to those who have autism, like his brother Amos, 19. "My brother had never been to a barbershop," Antoine said. "I was cutting my hair and my bother's hair as a child."
When he started communication studies at Kutztown University, he brought his clippers and trimmed hair for his classmates. By the time he was a sophomore, Antoine was offered a job by Jonathan Eseueca, owner of City Cuts Barber Shop on West Main Street in Kutztown. "It beats cutting hair in a bathroom," he said. "And I got my barber's license as well. Then it was college, cut hair, homework and repeat."
Amos was the inspiration for Antoine's 2015 project at a KU Small Business Development Center competition. He created Fading Autism, a program for barbers to give free haircuts to those with autism in a comfortable setting. The project was a runner-up, but stalled there because it was not a profitable plan.
When he graduated in 2016, Antoine put Fading Autism into action. He went to autism support groups in Reading and shared the plan with parents. Now he has 20 regular clients. "Parents are relieved that they can walk into the barbershop and know someone is patient enough," he said. "These are not regular haircuts. We might have to take a break in between. I give each haircut an hour."
The haircuts are before and after regular shop hours. Before meeting in person, he interviews the family to find out if the client is low or high on the autism spectrum, and what his or her hobbies are. Through the phone consultation, Antoine learned that Kimberly Herman's son Derek, 10, likes the "Minecraft" video game. He had "Minecraft" on the television when the Macungie boy arrived at the shop. They became fast friends.
"He thinks Frank is the best friend in the world," Kimberly said. "He was the first person Derek invited to his birthday party." They had bad luck at other barbershops. "Typically they run you in and out," she said. "Sometimes they don't finish the haircut and say, 'There is nothing we can do about it.' Or you get an uneven cut because they don't take the time. They say: 'It's not my fault. He won't sit still.' Frank will stop and wait. Before him, haircuts were few and far between."
A good haircut matters.
"It makes him feel more accepted," Kimberly said. "It gives him a chance to be a regular kid."
Saying he can't cut them all, Antoine would like to spread the program across the country. You can donate via PayPal to help Antoine broaden the program.