How a Simple Change Makes Stores Better for Special Needs Shoppers

A U.K. manager made shopping in his store more pleasant for special needs kids and adults by instituting a simple quiet hour.
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Many kids and adults with autism write about how they struggle to filter out sounds, bright lights, and other sensory experiences. With the world coming at them from every direction—loud, fast, bright, smelly, and full of expectations for certain behaviors—it's no surprise that things like a shopping trip can overwhelm. A video from the National Autistic Society really captured this, and I've seen it with my own son as well. While not everyone understands how my son and other autistic people feel in these situations, some people are starting to get it.

Simon Lea, manager of an Asda superstore in the U.K., for example, has been working to make his store more accommodating to shoppers with autism and other disabilities. He recently held a "quiet hour" during which "escalators, in-store music and display TVs were all turned off and customers were given a map of the store featuring pictures instead of words" to make shopping more pleasant for them.

The idea came about when Lea saw a boy with autism struggling to cope in the store. "It's all about helping people really," Lea told the Independent. "Six months ago I would have said 'control your child' even though I've got children. But speaking to people with autism and disabled people has helped me think about how I can make it a better place to shop."

Other stores in the same shopping center are following Asda's example, and they plan on having quiet hours as well.

I applaud their vision, and I hope that stores in the United States follow suit. I know my son, our family, and the many other families like ours would benefit tremendously from just a small accommodation like a quiet hour and a lower-stress shopping environment.

For example, during our recent cross-country move, my family went to a superstore to stock up on water, snacks, and toys. My 8-year-old autistic son did well throughout the trip, but he was overwhelmed by the time we got to the registers. While my husband got into line, I walked my son towards the exits. He flopped on the floor in front of the checkouts, quite upset. We worked it out, he stood up, we got to the car, and he found his calm.

But, here's what I missed:

The clerk who was ringing up my husband saw my son and said: "Wow, some people just need to discipline their kids better, amiright?"

My husband: "That's my kid. And he's autistic. Which means he's having a hard time right now, and he can't help it. He's not misbehaving, and it's not about discipline."

Clerk: [silence]

Hopefully, this clerk will be kinder the next time someone with sensory needs comes through his checkout line, but to me this interaction drives home how much ignorance still exists around autistic meltdowns and sensory needs. I hope more store managers like Simon Lea can educate their employees about how to help our families.

Jamie Pacton writes middle grade and young adult fiction, drinks loads of coffee, dreams of sailing, and enjoys each day with her husband and two sons. Find her at www.jamiepacton.com, Facebook, and Twitter @jamiepacton.

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