A haircut can be a scary and traumatic experience for a child with autism. It's why a Staten lsland couple is opening one of the first salons of its kind in the city. NY1's Lindsay Tuchman filed the following report.
Playing with her little sister, Elle Perez seems just like any other 10-year-old girl.
"She's such a little girly girl, loves princesses," says Samantha Perez, Elle's mother.
But Elle has autism.
"When she was first diagnosed she didn't speak at all, there were no words, she was very non verbal and never gave eye contact," Perez said.
Elle doesn't like being touched and that can create big challenges for her mother, an artist, and her father, a ferry deckhand, like cutting Elle's hair and nails.
"It would look like a tantrum for somebody who doesn't know, it looks like she's rude, mean or whining, crying, she looks like she's spoiled or she's a brat, but she's none of those, it's just that you're a stranger touching her," said Michael Perez.
Knowing other parents faced the same challenges the couple decided to open a salon for children with autism, Puzzle Piece Hygiene in West Brighton.
"We warm them up, make sure it's a good experience, sometimes you have the parent get their nails done so that they can show the child that it's safe, it's not a scary transition, it's a family function," said Michael Perez.
Puzzle Piece offers hair cuts, manicures and pedicures with the aid of a child therapist. It hopes to expand to skin care, massage, lice removal and other services.
"A lot of kids on the spectrum don't like being touched at all, they're strangers, you walk in to a place like here, we're going to get to know you a little bit, you walk into another salon they're going to be hands on right away," said Samantha Morris, a therapist.
And they don't just cater to children with autism, anyone with any special need at any age is welcome.
Still under renovation, Puzzle Piece's space and resources are shared with Luxury Dior Spa & Salon.
"There's all these kids on Staten Island and there's not one place that caters to them, I'm sure they see their parents getting their hair and nails done and say oh I wanna do the same thing too," said Luigi Anderson, owner of Luxury Dior Spa & Salon.
Puzzle Piece is open Mondays and Wednesdays but plans to expand to five days a week.
Payment is on a donation basis. The goal is to become a non-profit so insurers can pick up the cost of services.