LONGMONT — Like tooth fairies, some parents with special-needs children periodically tiptoe into that bedroom down the hall.
Usually, they make this nocturnal visit — scissors in hand — mere hours after their kid survived another haircut, according to Mili Ponesse, who opened Silly Scissors with her husband, Lou, in late March.
For years, they’ve gently rearranged pillows to clip locks hanging over the ears or necks of their two boys — straggler hairs left over from a harried haircut.
The Ponesse boys — Louie, 6, and Tommy, 5 — both have autism, a complex brain disorder that stunts a child’s ability to communicate and socialize, according to the Mayo Clinic Web site.
During their sons’ early years, this couple soldiered on at the barbershop. While the kids cried and flailed, they cuddled and cajoled with familiar words of futility: “Sit still.”
Then, during the 2004 holidays, the Ponesses decided to open a kid-friendly hair salon — one complete with a “tranquility room” for special-needs children.
That backroom door is to special-needs kids what the rabbit hole was for Alice in Wonderland. Because some special-needs kids need more stimulation and others need less, the room offers environmental options.
The track lighting can be dimmed or brightened; the mirrors can be curtained or exposed; the child can sit in a kid-sized chair or perch on a parent’s lap in the adult chair.
And because special-needs kids often crave more heads-up about what is going to happen, the haircut story unfolds pictorially. Above the mirrors, pictures of a chair, spray bottle, comb and haircut show the steps, left to right.
The tranquility room also stocks a bald plastic doll that can “grow” Play-Doh hair when the child pushes up on the bottom of the doll.
Either the stylist or the child can then cut the squishy hair with plastic scissors, Lou Ponesse added.
Tranquility room “graduates” get a signed Certificate of Merit with their name and the date.
“This gives parents a place where they don’t have to feel embarrassed or rushed,” said Lou Ponesse, 33. “Other parents just don’t understand.”
Plenty of kids without special needs also dread haircuts like they dread shots or spankings. And it doesn’t help that salons geared to grown-ups frown on squawking pipsqueaks.
Silly Scissors stylist Lisa Follett said other salons sometimes post signs designating a spot for children to wait or an admonition not to leave them behind unless they have an appointment.
“Here, we know we’re working with a moving target, and we don’t throw our hands up,” she said.
Follett and the other stylists — who in-house go by their first names with a “Miss” or a “Mister” attached — welcome kids and ask them questions. It’s part of the haircut warm-up to ask each one about their school, their siblings and, of course, their name.
“We use their name, not ‘Bud’ or ‘Buddy,’” Lou Ponesse said.
Stylists also offer options and courtesies to kids as if they could tip for the rare consideration.
“We get some funky requests,” stylist Miranda Trujillo said. “One little girl, about 7 years old, she wanted her hair cut like the girl from the Parent Trap — long on one side and short on the other.”
A 5-year-old boy requested a haircut that covered his left eye like a drawn window shade, she added.
Other kids exercise their right to choose when the apron, now fuzzy with lobbed locks, comes off. That’s when they get to choose from a rainbow of hair gels.
One boy wanted both red and blue so he could look like Spiderman, Lou Ponesse said. Colored gel or glitter comes with every haircut, along with a balloon and lollipop.
But the atmosphere grabs kids and parents the moment they push on the front door.
Red linoleum. Navy-blue walls. Canary-yellow countertops. Television screens positioned in a row in front of the chairs. It all speaks to an atmosphere tailored to kids.
They can pick DVDs to watch — from “Stuart Little” to “Shrek” to “Peter Pan” — or grab a stuffed animal or a joystick to play video games.
Kids who weigh 50 pounds or less can do all that sitting in a tiny sports car-shaped chair.
That is what 22-month-old Aly Laurain of Boulder did during her first haircut Thursday. While she honked the horn, revved the “engine” and cranked the wheel, Follett nimbly cut her blond tresses.
However, after about 12 minutes, the little girl stuck her right foot out of the car — a telltale sign of a brewing tantrum if the scene didn’t change soon.
“That’s the thing. You can ease them into it. But there’s still a window — no matter how good the stylist is — before they’ll start getting antsy,” Lou Ponesse said.
So, instead of taking 45 minutes to get the job done, Silly Scissors shoots for 15 minutes or less.
Some parents who have stumbled into Silly Scissors gape a little at the bells and whistles. But the service stands out more than the colorful props for Elizabeth Bigelow, the 34-year-old Longmont mother of Pierce, 2.
“I like all the TVs and stuff,” she said. “But for me, it’s the service more than the setting. It could have been in an empty warehouse.”
She said it helped when the stylist showed her son that clippers don’t hurt, they tickle.
Another Longmont mom with a special-needs child said Silly Scissors is an idea whose time has come.
“It was too stressful for him to sit in a chair and have a stranger take sharp implements near his head,” she said.
Since her son was 2 years old, she has avoided the salon scene by cutting his hair at home.
Even that meant her husband had to hold him down while she “sheared him like a sheep,” she said.
“It always looked like I stuck him down the garbage disposal,” the woman added.
But when Silly Scissors opened, that changed.
A stylist put a joystick in the boy’s hands and assured him he could take breaks or leave whenever he wanted. Instead, he sat through the haircut without much of a fuss.
To get this result, Lou Ponesse said he will do everything from juggling to telling jokes. He and his wife understand that creativity counts in distracting a kid from the hands floating around their head.
“Other stylists are just trying to cut,” Mili Ponesse, 32, said. “We’re trying to comfort and entertain at the same time.”
Pam Mellskog can be reached at 303-684-5224, or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.