Barber's breakthrough in cutting autistic boy's hair

Barber Lisa Ann McKenzie's experience cutting autistic child Jordie Rowland's hair motivated her to open her own shop and work with more children who have special needs.
Barber Lisa Ann McKenzie's experience cutting autistic child Jordie Rowland's hair motivated her to open her own shop and work with more children who have special needs.PHOTO: COURTESY OF LISA ANN MCKENZIE

WASHINGTON • The first time 10-year-old Jordie Rowland came into the barber shop, it was a "disaster", barber Lisa Ann McKenzie said.

Jordie, who has autism, struggled with his parents to run back outside the moment he got in the shop, which is in Brisbane, Australia.

Ms McKenzie ended up walking around the barber shop with Jordie that day two years ago, even lying on the floor with him.

She got in a few snips, but stopped the haircut when she saw that Jordie was agitated.

The stimulation of a haircut can be painful and terrifying for some children with autism. Jordie was no different.

"I felt that I'd failed and it made me want to do better," said Ms McKenzie, who has been a barber for more than three decades.

"It made me want to learn more about autism so I could connect with him and take away his fear."

He was the first non-verbal child she had had as a customer. He was not her last.

After the first unsuccessful haircut, she suggested to Jordie's parents that they bring him back every two weeks at closing time, often at no charge. That went on for a few months.

"I'd cut just a little bit, he'd run around the shop. His hair was long. I could never cut it properly," she said. "I'd get a couple of snips in and then he'd just flip. That was a really tough time. But I knew we had to just keep going."

She even went to his house to give it a try. No luck.

Then the owner of the barber shop chastised Ms McKenzie for allowing a customer to come in after closing time.

Frustrated, she left that job and, soon after, opened her own shop, the Celtic Barber Rothwell Central. "It made me determined to open my doors and do better by these kids," said Ms McKenzie, who is originally from Ireland and has four children of her own.

Every two weeks, Jordie would come by her shop after it was closed and the music was turned down. This lasted about eight months.

Then, a few weeks ago, they had a breakthrough. She sang The Wheels On The Bus to him.

"I didn't know he was into nursery rhymes, I was just trying to calm him," she said. "He looked at me, mesmerised. I had him. That was it."

She gave him a full haircut for the first time. "Every bit of it," she said proudly.

In that moment, she and Jordie's parents realised their painfully slow, two-year effort had paid off.

"Tears were rolling down my face," Ms McKenzie said. "His mum was crying, his dad was crying, all of us."

Two weeks later, Jordie, now 12, let her do it again. She asked one of her staff to take a video.

"I'm trying to increase awareness for people not to judge," she said.

By the time Jordie's haircut was a success, he was far from her only autistic customer.

Word had gotten around town that she was pretty good with special-needs children and she had started cutting the hair of many other "special kids", as she calls them.

She trained her four staff barbers to do the same. She estimates she now has about 100 such customers.

Later this month, she plans to hold her first monthly Sunday that is set aside "only for these beautiful, misunderstood children", she said.

She said she regularly did not charge Jordie's family the cost of a haircut, A$25 (S$25), for every time he came in because she did not want that to be a barrier. Plus, Jordie's three siblings are regular customers.

"It's not always about the dollar," she said. "To me, this is the cornerstone of a barber shop, making connections with people. If you connect with people, your business will survive long after you're here."

Ms McKenzie, who is a cancer survivor, said she believes that she beat cancer for a reason.

"Maybe the reason is to do something like this," she said. "To increase understanding for these kids."


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on March 25, 2018, with the headline 'Barber's breakthrough in cutting autistic boy's hair'. Print Edition | Subscribe