Melissa Stansell, center, and her team at The HeadQuarters in Wilmington, Delaware. As the mother of an autistic son, Melissa Stansell knows exactly how challenging a medical exam, dental checkup or haircut can be for an autistic child. The sensory overload of an unusual environment and situation can trigger the child to experience a meltdown, act out and scream, and the parents and caregivers may need to restrain the child to get the necessary task accomplished. As a result, the entire experience becomes stressful for the child, the parents and the service providers alike.
To ease the experience of hair services for autistic children in her area, Stansell launched Autism Nights at her salon, The HeadQuarters in Wilmington, Delaware, earlier this year. On the last Friday of every month, she sets aside a few hours in the evening to book appointments for these VIP guests, and she and her stylists do whatever it takes to help the children and their parents feel comfortable.
Every autistic child is different, says Stansell. Part of making the service successful is finding what makes each one feel most comfortable to get over what she calls the sensory hump. “Every child is different, there’s no one magic formula--part of the process is figuring out what works for each child,” says Stansell. “We do whatever it takes to help them over the sensory hump. For one child that might mean turning off the radio, while another might not like the fluorescent lights. One child whose hair I cut likes the pressure of an embrace, so I put him in my lap and hug him with one arm while cutting with the other hand. For another girl, it means cutting her hair in the lobby, because she is fascinated by the rows of colored polish.”
One in 88 children is diagnosed with Autism in the United States. “That means almost everyone knows someone who falls on the spectrum,” says Stansell, who finds it’s the parents who are the most ecstatic to have an understanding environment to bring their children.
“You know, usually there's nothing about the physical appearance of an autistic kid that signals to everyone that this is a child who has special needs," she explains. “So when an autistic child acts out, observers assume the child is a spoiled brat, and the parents have gotten used to having to hold their heads up high and remind themselves that this is their life and they just have to roll with it.”
But even with the extra care Stansell and her staff devote, she says some parents need to restrain their children in order for her or her stylists to complete a hair service. Knowing how that feels as a parent is what prompted her to apply to Wella’s Hairdressers at Heart Charity Challenge. Stansell’s competition essay captured the attention of judges and earned her a third-prize grant of $1,000 for her philanthropy.