Cutting with kindness

How a stylist helped this boy conquer his fear

CINCINNATI -- Patrick Boyne was not quite 2 years old the first time his parents took him to get a haircut.

It was a nightmare.

“He couldn’t sit still in the chair. He didn’t like the scissors. He didn’t like the contact. He didn’t like the noise,” Patrick’s mom, Amy Boyne, said. “Keeping him in the seat, I actually had to hold him down, and my husband had to help.”

Patrick wasn’t throwing a typical toddler tantrum. He’s autistic, and the haircut was more than he could handle that first time -- and for more times after that.

But this isn’t a story about how scary it can be for a child with autism to do everyday things, although it can be. And it isn’t a story about how the parents of those kids have to deal with the stares of strangers because of their children’s atypical behavior, although they do.

This is a story about how a hairstylist named Sarah treated Patrick with love and kindness and understanding over and over for as long as it took to make him comfortable. Because that’s exactly what Sarah Beiser Eaton did.

Sarah Beiser Eaton sprays Patrick Boyne's hair with water as she begins his haircut. (Scott Wegener | WCPO)

Eaton owns Kid’s Kutz at Hyde Park Plaza. She cut Patrick Boyne’s hair that first time more than eight years ago, and she has been cutting it ever since.

“It’s much better now,” Eaton said on the Monday after Thanksgiving after giving Patrick a trim. “It used to be really hard. He moved around a lot. Mom helped. We would hold him down.”

It’s completely different these days. On that Monday, Patrick walked into the salon, handed his coat to his mom and hopped onto his preferred frog chair.

“Can I put a cape on you today?” Sarah asked.

That was fine with Patrick so she got started.

Sarah Beiser Eaton uses the clippers to trim Patrick Boyne's hair. (Scott Wegener | WCPO)

Fear responses and sensory aversions

Stephanie Weber is a licensed psychologist at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center and specializes in treating children with autism spectrum disorder and other developmental disabilities.

She said typical people and families take lots of everyday experiences such as haircuts for granted. But those experiences can be terrifying for kids with autism. Those include:

  • Flushing toilets in a public bathroom
  • Bright lights in a grocery store
  • Wide-open spaces, such as large parks
  • Big crowds at a zoo or a museum
  • Going to the dentist
  • Doctor appointments in general

“A lot of those things are overwhelming. They lead to fear responses, lead to sensory aversions and then they want to avoid the situation in the future,” Weber said. “That’s where families feel very overwhelmed, knowing that they’re alone in the community sometimes, knowing that they’re getting judged by other patrons. Getting looks. Getting stares.”

Dr. Stephanie Weber

Weber and her colleagues at Cincinnati Children’s do training sessions in the community to explain what to expect from people on the autism spectrum so service providers, daycare workers and others understand what can go well and what can go badly.

“For many of our kids on the spectrum, it’s not that they don’t want these experience. It’s very fearful and overwhelming and very powerful in terms of feelings that overcome them in those instances,” Weber said. “So when it’s all said and done and it’s successful, they also report feeling really good about it.”

Which takes us back to Patrick and his most recent haircut.

‘You’re doing good, Patrick’

Amy Boyne smiled as Eaton snapped the cape onto her son.

“Tell Ms. Sarah what your newest thing is. What will you do now that you wouldn’t do before?” Boyne prompted her son. “After you get out of the bath?”

“Go to bed,” Patrick said.

“The hair dryer,” his mom told Eaton.

“Oh -- you’re using the hair dryer?” Eaton said to Patrick. “That’s awesome.”

As Eaton combed through Patrick’s thick, dark hair, he made a high-pitched squeaking noise.

“You ready for water?” Eaton asked him. “I have it warm for you.”

Eaton squirted the water on her hand and ran her fingers through the front. 

“It doesn’t feel very warm anymore, though,” she said. “Is that OK?” 

Sarah Beiser Eaton cuts Patrick's hair as his mom, Amy Boyne, watches. (Scott Wegener | WCPO)

Eaton moved around Patrick as he watched the movie playing on the salon’s TV. She squirted the back of his hair with water and continued to comb.

“You’re doing good, Patrick,” Eaton reassured him as she reached for her clippers. “You want to turn it on?”

After a quiet “yes” from Patrick, she lifted the cape so he could reach the button.

“You know how,” she said. “You always do it.”

Eaton worked and chatted. Sometimes Patrick responded. Sometimes his mom did.

Eaton switched the blade on her clippers and asked Patrick to look down at his belly. Patrick squealed.

“Good job,” she said, five minutes into the haircut.

“It’s gonna be OK today,” Patrick said.

Eaton and his mom had to agree.

Amy Boyne smiles as she watches Sarah Beiser Eaton give her son, Patrick, a haircut. (Scott Wegener | WCPO)

The scissors came next.

“Don’t cut at my eyes,” Patrick said in a high, squeaky voice.

“I’m not going to cut your eyes,” Eaton said.

“No way,” Patrick said in his regular voice.

“No way,” Eaton said.

Patrick's mom could hardly take her eyes off Eaton and Patrick. 

There have been things Boyne has done along the way to try to make the haircuts easier. She made a letter board for her son so he knew what to expect each visit.

But Boyne said the credit belongs to Eaton. She’s the one who built the trust to make these haircuts possible.

‘Love for the kids who need it’

Eaton has some difficulty explaining how she did it.

“I love kids,” she said after the haircut. “I’m kind of quiet, and I think that helps instead of being overbearing and instead of being louder than them.”

Patrick isn’t Eaton’s only client with autism. She has clients with other disabilities, too. Even some adults with disabilities come to her.

Patrick Boyne was a bit more tentative about the scissors during his haircut, but Sarah Beiser Eaton reassured him. (Scott Wegener | WCPO)

She doesn’t think of what she does as special.

“I think it’s just the love for the kids. The love for the kids who need it,” she said. “You bend yourself to them, I think.”

It sounds simple enough. But Eaton has a way of talking to Patrick and knowing what he needs.

During his most recent haircut, Eaton talked to Patrick about when different movies and TV shows were made and what holidays were coming up. She asked if he would stay up until midnight on New Year’s Eve. Patrick answered politely. About 10 minutes in, he had a question.

“When are we done?” he asked.

“Soon,” Eaton said. “You going to push the button on the little buzz?”

“Then what do we do?” Patrick asked.

“Little buzz then blow dryer,” Eaton said. “And then we’ll put some product in.”

“And then done,” Patrick said.

“And then done,” Eaton agreed.

Patrick Boyne was ready for his haircut to be finished and stood up in the frog chair as Sarah Beiser Eaton applied product. (Lucy May | WCPO)

Patrick likes to look at himself in the mirror now. His mom tells him how handsome he looks.

That was true even when the haircuts were most difficult, she said.

“We had to keep bringing him back, and every time Sarah was just very patient and helpful. She could follow his every move, which I thought was pretty amazing,” Boyne said. “I was always stunned by how great the haircuts turned out.”

A haircut might seem like a little thing, but it’s a big deal to families like Patrick’s.

“To have a child with a disability that can have a haircut that is just like every other kiddo -- it’s huge,” his mom said. “It makes his appearance better. He looks better. He feels better. As he gets older, and the disability becomes more apparent, it’s those little things that kind of make a big difference.”

It’s important for other reasons, too.

Amy Boyne, left, poses with her son, Patrick, after his haircut at Kid's Kutz in Hyde Park. (Lucy May | WCPO)

“Just like everybody else, the whole goal for them is to grow up and get jobs and navigate the community as best they can,” Weber said. “And part of that world is having haircuts and brushing your teeth and taking showers and interacting with your peers at school. And all of those things prepare them for the real world.”

The real world can be a scary place for kids like Patrick and for their parents, too.

That’s why Boyne is so grateful there are people like Eaton. For more than eight years now, she has shown Patrick the same love and respect she shows all her clients, no matter how scared or wiggly or screechy he has been.

Boyne said she thinks there’s a lesson in this success that goes beyond haircuts.

“Just treat the person the way you would want to be treated, regardless of the disability,” she said. “I think that, yeah, we would be a better society for it.”

Patrick Boyne, left, with Sarah Beiser Eaton after his haircut. (Lucy May | WCPO)

Lucy May writes about the people, places and issues that define our region – to celebrate what makes the Tri-State great and shine a spotlight on issues we need to address. To read more stories by Lucy, go to www.wcpo.com/may. To reach her, email lucy.may@wcpo.com. Follow her on Twitter @LucyMayCincy.