The first time 10-year-old Jordie Rowland came into the barber shop it was a “disaster,” barber Lisa Ann McKenzie said.
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 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 nonverbal 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.”
McKenzie even went to his house to give it a try. No luck.
Then the owner of the barber shop chastised 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 McKenzie, who is originally from Ireland and has four children of her own.
Every two weeks, Jordie would come by McKenzie’s 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 like mesmerized. 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, McKenzie and Jordie’s mother and father all realized their painfully slow, two-year effort had paid off.
“Tears were rolling down my face,” McKenzie said. “His mom 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 hair cut was a success, he was far from her only autistic customer. Word had gotten around town that McKenzie was pretty good with special needs kids, 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, $25 Australian dollars (about $20 U.S.) 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,” McKenzie 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.”
McKenzie, who is a cancer survivor, said she believes she beat cancer for a reason.
“Maybe the reason is to do something like this,” she said. “To increase understanding for these kids.”