Frankel Antoine, a 24-year-old licensed barber, gives free haircuts to people with autism. He is passionate about his work, which was inspired by his brother, 19-year-old Amos, who has autism and does not speak. In the beginning, Antoine would give his brother haircuts at their home, understanding his needs when it came to his sensory sensitivities. “It’s hard to communicate with him or understand what he’s trying to communicate. They are very sensitive to light and noise so he can’t be in any social setting,” he said.
When Antoine was a sophomore in college, he was offered a job at City Cuts Barbershop, located in Kutztown, Pennsylvania. “It beats cutting hair in a bathroom. And I got my barber’s license as well. Then it was college, cut hair, homework and repeat,” he said.
Providing a safe haven for those who need it
Each Saturday, Antoine would open the barbershop a little earlier and spend time giving haircuts to individuals with autism. He noted that in the mornings, more things could be controlled, such as outbursts. What’s more, things that could not be controlled could at least try to be reduced to the best possibility ability. “It’s more calming that way. It’s also relieving for the parent because there’s no one there to judge. It’s the privacy aspect that’s relieving for the parents,” said Antoine.
Combining his passion for cutting hair, Antoine created “Fading Autism”, a program for barbershops to give free haircuts to people on the autism spectrum within a comforting setting. “Fading Autism was created to fade away any insecurities a person on the spectrum may be feeling and inspire them to grow and be great,” he said. Fading is a specific and popular type of haircut, where the hair is cut short near the back and the sides and then it is styled into the desired length at the top of the head.
Today, Antoine has over 20 regular clients who come in on Saturday mornings. “Parents are relieved that they can walk into the barbershop and know someone is patient enough,” he said. Each haircut takes around one hour and Antoine pays great attention to detail, ensuring a precise cut and a smooth experience. The haircut appointments take place before and after regular work hours. Parents and caregivers must first fill out a form that can be found on www.fadingautism.org. The form includes information about the customer with autism, including their name, what level of the spectrum they are on, if they have any hobbies or favorite things they like to do, and more. Antoine then follows up with a phone call to book the time and date of the appointment.
Letting kids be kids
During one particular phone conversation, Antoine found out that Kimberly Herman’s 10-year-old autistic son, Derek, likes the video game ‘Minecraft’. So, when Derek came into the barbershop for his haircut appointment, Antoine had Minecraft videos playing on the television and the two quickly became friends. “He thinks Frank is the best friend in the world. He was the first person Derek invited to his birthday party,” said Kimberly. Derek’s mother stressed that Antoine gave her son the chance to be a regular kid and made him feel more accepted. “I have met so many negative people and businesses when it comes to my son and his autism that I just felt like Frank deserves the recognition that he should be getting,” she said.
Antoine is grateful to his friend and mentor, Jonathan Escueta, who is the owner of City Cuts Barbershop. It was Escueta who not only offered Antoine a job, but also allowed him to get creative in his establishment and make a difference within their local community. Escueta stated that when Antoine first came to him with the idea, he was more than thrilled to accept. He strongly supports “Fading Autism” and believes that Antoine has started a wonderful program. “His heart fueled his passion for something near and dear and there was no way I wasn’t going to support it. He wants to help others like his brother, to create an experience in the barber chair like any other person would,” said Escueta.
According to Antoine, a simple haircut can do wonders for boosting his clients’ self-confidence levels, making them feel better about themselves. He wants to continue delivering a feel-good attitude to overcome any insecurities that individuals with autism may be feeling. “It’s my way to giving back to my brother and everyone like him,” he said. Antoine would like to spread awareness on autism as a whole and he strongly feels that the “Fading Autism” program is a great approach. He hopes to inspire other licensed barbers across the United States to open their doors and give back to their local communities. “Let’s give back to the people that don’t have a voice. Individuals with autism are very sensitive. They don’t like loud noises. They don’t like being in the spotlight. Someone has to speak up for them. I believe that’s what I’m doing,” concluded Antoine.
The unemployment problem with autism
In the United States, only 35% of autistic adolescents go off to college. Of those who receive their diplomas, only 15% are employed, leaving an 85% unemployment gap wide open. There are several reasons as to why individuals with autism may find themselves unemployed - health-related reasons, traumatic experience or dissatisfaction from a previous job, downsizing from a previous job, and more. Some may have even taken time off to start a family, while others may have never held down a steady job.
Individuals on the autism spectrum find it difficult to penetrate through the job market. A majority of these individuals become anxious filling out a job application, working around other individuals or they have low self-confidence. While they are eager to work, most have difficulty navigating the social recruitment process. The fact of the matter is that in today’s society, unemployment is a common aspect of life and not just for those with autism. However, there are an increasing number of organizations working hard to launch programs designed specifically to engage and hire individuals on the autism spectrum.
Photo: Fading Autism