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A barber turns haircuts into a game to help a boy with autism get through them

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

Time now for "My Unsung Hero," our series from the team at Hidden Brain. "My Unsung Hero" tells the stories of people whose kindness left a lasting impression on someone else. Today's story comes from LaQuista Erinna. A few years ago, her 7-year-old son, Jackson, was diagnosed with autism. Jackson was often overwhelmed by sensory experiences, and haircuts were the worst. He'd get so anxious that he'd start kicking and screaming. Eventually, his mom found a barber named Ree who, over time, learned how to stave off Jackson's meltdowns. But one day in early 2022, everything went wrong.

LAQUISTA ERINNA: We got caught in traffic. He left his headphones. We hadn't had lunch. It was just, like, a series of unfortunate events. And he was like, no, I don't want to go. I was like, come on, Jackson. Stop playing. Like, I got things to do. I'm, like, hungry myself. Like, we usually - I have to say it, like, three times. And this time he refused to get in the seat, and he started running around the shop. And Ree's like, come on, Jackson, man. You know you're my man. Like, she's trying to talk to him. She tried to put the cape on him, and he just had a fit. And she was like, come look in the mirror. I'm going to show you what I'm doing. And he looked, but he still wasn't having it. And I was like, come on, Jackson. I'm getting frustrated. And she's like, no, I got it. And so I just sat on the couch, and I'm like, she's not going to be able to cut his hair. I'm going to give it five minutes. We're going to go get something to eat and go home.

Well, next thing you know, I'm looking, and she's, like, cutting his hair. He's standing up. And I'm like, wait. She's playing a game with him. She would shave his hair. The hair would fall. He would wipe it off, and then they would run to a different spot because he doesn't like the hair to get on him. It's, like, a whole thing. So it was a good distraction for him, and she was able to kind of cut his hair. When they got finished, like, he was so happy. And he was like, well, can we go back tomorrow and play the game? I was like, I don't know about tomorrow, but we'll be back in a couple weeks.

Jackson and Ree - they have their own special relationship. And I think most importantly, he trusts her. He will not let anyone else touch his hair. And that just goes to show, like, how she nurtured that relationship. When Ree was able to do this, it meant the absolute world for me to be able to trust her and be like, OK, I know she's going to take care of my son and make sure he's looking the best. Like, you can't ask for anything more than that. I just want to tell Ree that we love you. You are part of our family now. And you'll never fully understand how much this meant to me as a mom.

SUMMERS: LaQuista Erinna of Loganville, Ga. She took a video of Ree and Jackson playing the haircutting game and posted it online. The clip went viral and now has millions of views. You can find more stories like this one on the "My Unsung Hero" podcast. And to share the story of your unsung hero, visit myunsunghero.org for instructions on how to send a voice memo.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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