Imagine walking into a sensory overload: bright, blinding lights, buzzing as loud as the tannoy squawking overhead; colours as bright as laser lights; music blaring; people everywhere. Imagine that you already struggle with social demands and you don’t really understand the task at hand: grocery shopping. Could you cope?
This is how going for the weekly shop can feel for autistic people. In order to accommodate the needs of autistic shoppers, a West Sussex Tesco is trialling a ‘quiet hour’ from 9 to 10am on Saturdays. During the quiet hour, in-store music will be turned off and no staff will be packing shelves. The display televisions and tannoys will be turned off, the lights will be dimmed, hand dryers in toilets will be turned off and the doors at the entrance to the store will be left open. To support this, all staff will have undergone initial autism training and briefing.
Counselling Directory member and clinical psychologist, Dr. Melanie Smart explains, “Imagine a brain where everything comes in at full volume. Nothing is muted, everything is full blast. All the world comes in at once, no focus, no processing, no tuning – you are ‘ON’”.
“Like anyone, people on the autism spectrum and their families want to be able to go shopping. But we know that many rely on routine and can find the often busy, loud and unpredictable environment of supermarkets disorienting and overwhelming”, Daniel Cadey, Autism Access Development Manager at the National Autistic Society said.
Dr. Smart explains, “People with neurodevelopmental disabilities such as autism have a differently-wired sensory system, in which the peripheral and central nervous system can misfire and mix signals. In this way, a person with autism can be under or over-reactive to incoming stimuli – touch, sound, taste, noise, smell – and struggle with the sense of their body in space and their balance. This can confuse the person, lead to anxiety and distress and result in unusual soothing, such as rocking or flapping, or avoidance strategies like withdrawing or fleeing, for example”.
“Anything that reduces the sensory overwhelm for people with autism will allow a little more scope to cope. Tesco’s idea of reducing stimulation in store is a wonderful initiative”, Dr. Smart said.
The National Autistic Society has recently launched its Autism Friendly Award to help the growing number of organisations who want to become more accessible, Cadey said. “Working with companies like Specsavers and Gatwick Airport, we’ve seen how it’s often the smallest changes that can make the biggest difference. For instance, making sure that staff are aware of hidden conditions like autism, and that there are quieter places for autistic people to go if they’re feeling overwhelmed – or a quieter time to visit, like Tesco’s ‘quiet hour’”, he added.
“We hope that more organisations will follow Tesco’s example in Crawley and do their bit to help make sure autistic people and their families have the same opportunities to use their local shops and amenities as everyone else”.