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FARMINGTON — It's been two months since the New Mexico Autism Society of San Juan County partnered with Utopia, a Farmington hair salon, to provide stress-free haircuts to individuals with autism and other sensory issues. Since that time, 14 people have taken advantage of the service, and organizers say word of the program's success is spreading nationwide -- and even worldwide.

Sarah Shelby, board member for the local autism group, organized the program, called Sensory Snip-Its, and says so far the program appears to be filling a need in the community.

"It's been going great, and so far we've filled up all the slots," she said. "Everyone's been very excited, and many salons have e-mailed me to find out more about it."

In fact, after a November Daily Times article ran, Shelby said a salon in Rio Rancho has adopted the program, and salons in California and Iowa, and even one as far away as Australia are now either offering Sensory Snip-Its or planning to do so.

Many people who fall on the autism spectrum, as well as other people with sensory issues, can't handle the hustle and bustle of a salon. The bright lights, loud sounds and chemical smells can create a sensory overload that makes it impossible for them to sit in a chair and get a professional haircut. Many parents of autistic children are forced to do the cuts at home, sometimes while their child is sleeping, to avoid causing them trauma.

The concept behind Sensory Snip-Its is to offer a peaceful, quiet and anxiety-free haircutting experience. The haircuts are "dry cuts," which means the stylist doesn't even have to wash the client's hair, so the cuts can be done more quickly.

The cuts are conducted after normal salon hours, and only two clients at a time are served by Utopia Salon Manager Luca Giovannini and stylist Jessica Radoijits.

"It's caught on like crazy, and I couldn't believe the attention (the program) has gotten," Shelby said. "People are taking the idea and putting it to use. The parents who have used our program have been so grateful because many of their kids had never been inside a salon before."

Shelby, who is the mother of a 12-year-old son with autism, said the parents are able to sit and rest without worrying about their children, and have been able to talk and share information with other parents of children with similar issues while the haircuts take place.

Pat Zellefrow's fifteen-year-old son, Matthew, is autistic. Matthew recently had a Sensory Snip-Its haircut at the salon, and Zellefrow says it was the first time since he was 10 months old that he'd had a professional cut.

"That was such a bad experience that I went to Wal-Mart and bought a home haircutting kit," says Zellefrow. "People could tell I cut his hair, and I wanted my son to look like other kids."

Even at home, Zellefrow says her husband, Clint, would have to hold Matthew down while she clipped his hair.

Zellefrow says Shelby contacted her about the Sensory Snip-Its, and she saw it as a great opportunity to finally have her son's hair professionally cut.

"I might have expected (this service) in a bigger city, but I couldn't believe there was an opportunity like this in Farmington. Since Luca didn't need to shampoo him, it was done so quickly. The only time Matthew scrunched his shoulders up was when the electric trimmer was on his neck - he didn't like the sound of it."

Zellefrow said the lighting was adjusted to be less stimulating. She said it was relaxing to sit and talk to the other mothers present.

"It gave me a good feeling to know that they would do this out of the goodness of their hearts, and take the time to help these kids out," she said. "It also helped my son's confidence. When Luca asked how he liked his haircut, Matthew said, 'I love it!' Conversation is so rare for him, so that was great."

The next Sensory Snip-Its session will be held January 15. Shelby said appointments can be made up to three months in advance, and need to be made by calling her, not the salon.


What: Sensory Snip-Its haircuts for people with autism or other sensory issues

When: Sessions will be held monthly, but dates will vary. The next session is Jan. 15

Where: Utopia Salon, 5150 College Blvd., Suite 202, Farmington

More info: To make an appointment for a Sensory Snip-Its haircut, or for information on the New Mexico Autism Society for San Juan County, call Sarah Shelby at 505-860-8764 or visit facebook.com/AutismSupportGroupofSanJuanCounty

Leigh Black Irvin covers health for The Daily Times. She can be reached at 505-564-4610 and lirvin@daily-times.com Follow her @irvindailytimes on Twitter.