A few weeks after Francis Franz Jacob opened his barbershop in Rouyn-Noranda, Quebec, in the fall of 2015, he welcomed a special client.
Wyatt Lafrenière, then 4, has autism, and has never enjoyed getting haircuts. Having his hair touched can be unbearable, and certain sounds can make him go off.
Would Jacob be willing to try to cut her son’s hair, Wyatt’s mother wondered.
“She explained to me how Wyatt was special,” Jacob, 45, explained. “And I took the challenge, and I succeeded.”
“Autistic children and young people can often find having their hair cut extremely distressing because of sensory challenges associated with the condition,” Meleri Thomas, of the U.K.’s National Autistic Society, told the BBC. “This means that when an autistic person is having their hair cut, the feeling of hands running through the hair, or hair landing on the face or body and the noise of the scissors can cause distress.”
Jacob had never before worked with children with autism, so he “just went with the emotions of the moment … just taking time, some love and good scissors.”
“I just decided to follow him, not to force him on anything,” Jacob said. They ate candy together. He let Wyatt put on some music. They walked all around the barbershop, playing and chatting. Wyatt would sometimes be on a chair, sometimes on the floor. Anywhere Wyatt went, Jacob followed.
Ninety minutes later, Wyatt walked out of the shop with a good haircut — and a smile on his face.
“Before Franz it was really difficult to have a haircut for Wyatt,” said Fauve Lafrenière, 30, Wyatt’s mother. “It’s really a nice moment to see my son happy in something that he doesn’t like.”
Impressed with the experience, Fauve spread the word around the city, which is about 300 miles northwest of Montreal. Other parents soon started bringing their kids, and Jacob now regularly serves young clients with autism at his barbershop, which is decorated with all sorts of memorabilia to give the place an “authentic, old-school vibe.”
“We sit around, eat candy, listen to some punk music,” he said. “It’s more than a regular haircut. There’s a vibe. There’s something going on. The kids want to come back after, because they’re having fun.”
Now, Jacob has become a bit of a sensation. Fauve recently snapped photos of Jacob sprawled on the ground next to Wyatt, using one hand to gently steady the boy’s head while snipping at his hair with the other. Fauve shared the image online, and it soon went viral.
“All this attention from around the world is quite something for me and Wyatt’s mom,” Jacob said. “It’s an amazing feeling to receive so much love from everywhere.”
Across the Atlantic, the Wales-based barber James Williams has found similar ways to make the haircut experience more positive for children with autism.
“…I’ll cut a child’s hair anywhere — lying on the floor, sitting on the sofa, sitting on the reception desk, on the windowsill, even in a car,” Williams told the BBC.
Williams has set up a charity called Autism Barbers Assemble to raise awareness among barbers of how to cut hair for children with autism, the BBC reported.
While Fauve lauds Jacob as an “everyday hero,” Jacob says he’s just a regular barber. The real stars of the show, he said, are the children.
“When they are at my place, they are the kings,” said Jacob. “My barbershop is like going for an ice cream. It has to be fun.”