A Kutztown barber is on a mission to fade autism, one haircut at a time.
Frankel Antoine, of Kutztown, originally from Orange, N.J., created Fading Autism in 2015 while a communications studies major at Kutztown University. While a barber at City Cuts in Kutztown, he offered free haircuts to autistic children.
In August 2018, Antoine opened his own shop, Fading Autism Barbershop on Main Street in Kutztown, continuing his mission to raise awareness about autism and offer free cuts to autistic children.
Tuesday through Saturday, the barbershop is an LLC business with a Saturday $10 special from 4 to 7 p.m. On Sundays, the shop functions as a 501(c)(3) non-profit charitable organization.
“We definitely keep the barbershop separate from the mission but it’s cool to educate families when they come in here. They may not know about autism. Even when I’m cutting town folk’s hair, it’s an opportunity to educate every day,” said Antoine.
A licensed barber at City Cuts Barbershop in Kutztown since 2012, he began offering free cuts to autistic children during closed hours once a week when the shop was quiet. As Fading Autism grew, Antoine wanted to help more autistic children so he opened his own barbershop to continue his dream. He now serves more than 100 families in Berks and Pike counties and can offer free haircuts to a maximum of six families every Sunday.
Each family gets one hour of time while the shop is closed to the public. Families can book an appointment at www.fadingautism.org. They fill out a survey including age, hobbies, favorite TV show and level of the autism spectrum.
Much of the hour is spent getting the client comfortable, especially for those with sensory sensitivity. For example, before even starting the cut, Antoine does combing exercises.
“Just getting them ready that someone is going to be touching their head,” he said. “Most of the time the haircut is not even done in the barber chair… because it might be more comfortable for them elsewhere (like at the water station or in front of the TV). I try to make it comfortable.”
Much of his autism experience and knowledge comes from growing up with his brother Amos, who was born on the lowest of the autism spectrum and is non-verbal.
“Growing up I noticed how difficult it would be for my Mom to give him a haircut. We would go to the barbershop and you could feel it in the air ‘I’m not wanted.’ Or you’ll see that someone skipped you and that’s how you get the idea, this barber doesn’t want to cut my hair. So growing up and experiencing that, that’s how I got started cutting my brother’s hair, feeling unwanted at other barbershops,” said Antoine. “I figured if I could give my brother a haircut, who is 6 foot 5, I figured I can give everybody like him a haircut. That’s how Fading Autism got started. I deal a lot with kids but I also give haircuts to adults.”
Fading Autism aims to connect with the Kutztown community. Antoine is a member of the Kutztown Optimist Club.
“They help sponsor my events and I help sponsor their events,” said Antoine. “When they have events, I’ll have a table there and funds will be donated to Fading Autism… That’s some ways that I’m connecting with the community.”
As a small business owner, he tries to keep it local by going to other local businesses for his needs.
“It’s all about supporting one another around town. Kutztown is one of the only towns where it feels like a community.”
Fading Autism also works with KU fraternity Lambda Chi Alpha, who are helping with fundraising and autism awareness events. They will be incorporating autism awareness at the Miss Kutztown event held at Schaeffer Auditorium at 7 p.m. on April 17.
As a KU alumnus, Antoine also wants to serve as a model for KU students by showing how he used his communications studies and his capstone project on autism awareness to create Fading Autism and unite that with his hobby of cutting hair.
“It’s okay to dream and also question how you are going to relate your degree into something that you want to do. If you can combine your dream and make a living, what better way of life is that?” he said. “It all started as a hobby. I was cutting hair in Bonner Hall my freshman year in 2010. Here I am now almost 10 years later with my own barbershop and I’m on a mission.”
His goal is to instill the Fading Autism concept across the country at other barbershops.
“I’m starting at home, I’m starting in Kutztown and I do hope we can spread this. Other barbershops might be inspired to start Fading Autism in their barbershops as well.”