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How Ben Els’ Childhood Barbers are Changing the Game for Individuals with Autism Needing Haircuts 

We are aware of certain professions having autism-sensitive professionals in the fields that they work in dentists, pediatricians, psychologists, and psychiatrists, to name a few. However, you don’t always think of a barber, so we spotlight one who provides free haircuts every third Sunday for children with autism.

Meet Joe Alfano, owner and proprietor of Barber’s Edge in Jupiter, Florida. Through the power of social media, in a few short-minute videos, he spoke about the need to accommodate kids with special needs, particularly autism, by having his barbershop open for them every third Sunday so there would be no noise, loud music, or distractions. Nothing that could irritate somebody who is very sensory-sensitive, and best of all, it is free!

Why did you want to become a barber?

 “Well, my mom was doing hair in the 70s and 80s. So when I was 15, in 1985, I started cutting hair in my garage for friends and family, giving them the worst haircuts you can imagine. As time passed, I got better and just kept cutting hair.”

How has autism spectrum disorder impacted you? 

“I moved to Jupiter in 2009 and started working at a barbershop. A couple of kids with autism would come to the shop, one of them being Ben, Ernie Els’ son, and another little child who suffered pretty badly. Myself and my colleague, Juan, felt that it was unfortunate, so we took an interest in taking our time with them, and seeing the reaction on the families’ faces made us happy because they could not get it done anywhere else, so that started it all.”

Can you tell us what you do every third Sunday of the week? Why is it valuable to open a barbershop just to cut the hair of children with autism? 

“I said every third Sunday, but we have been busy during July and have done it for the past two Sundays. It is valuable to open the shop when the barbershop is not open because it is quiet. The child has the run of the place with nothing going on: no music, no loud TVs, no loud conversations, and they seem to be adapting very well, so I want to keep this going because I am seeing progress with this.”

How long have you been accommodating children with autism in the pursuit of getting a decent haircut? 

“The goal is to give a decent haircut whenever someone is in your chair. It just happens that children with autism, who suffer from sensory issues, need a lot of extra time and effort, and they dislike doing it sometimes. The parents and I have to hold them a bit so the job gets done, but I am very successful when that child sits in my chair, and they learn to trust me.

What would you say to parents who would like a sensory-friendly barber to cut the hair of children with autism? What would you say to barbers interested in cutting the hair of children with autism? 

“Well, over the last 15 years, feedback from parents has been they have had bad experiences, so they try to give me fair warning about this. I don’t want to sound overconfident, so I tell them I will do my best and make it happen just like any barber wanting to attempt it. You must have plenty of patience and be very understanding so that the child is not at fault when you are trying to build a relationship of trust with them, and it seems to get the job done.”

What are your ambitions to allow more time to service the autism community by getting a haircut?

“As of now, I am the only one at the shop. It is my shop, so I took this responsibility upon myself. It seems like it will be every other week for now, but I already have the other barbers speaking to me about wanting to join in and do it, so we will see if we can increase the number of Sundays when we cut the hair of children with autism. There were kids with autism who came to the shop during the week when the shop was fully operational, and they didn’t do well. But when they come to the shop on a Sunday, when it is so quiet and peaceful, the job gets done, and the families love how well their child is under modest circumstances.

It motivates me even more when I see that big smile on the family’s face after finishing their haircut. It is another box checked off the list of something not to worry about, and I know I have a big responsibility when a child with autism comes to my shop. I make them my responsibility, so I care for them entirely. Every barber at Barber’s Edge has love and compassion for any child with special needs and on the spectrum. We do our best to get the job done and make the families happy with the results.”

Thanks go to Joe Alfano at Barber’s Edge, who has inspired other barbers to consider acknowledging the accommodations needed for children with autism. Many thanks to him for taking the time to answer our questions and spending a lot of Sundays helping the child with autism get the cut that they want.