Why is Shopping difficult for autistic people?
Shopping and autism can be a difficult combination. Many autistic people struggle with shopping environments. Whilst every person with autism presents differently, many people on the spectrum struggle with things like noise, smells and sound. Sensory processing difficulties means people become overloaded when they get too much sensory information to process at once. Most shopping environments are full of different noises, smells and sounds and can easily cause an overload for people on the autistic spectrum.
Supermarkets are very busy with lots of people talking and moving around. They are full of different smells from chemicals to meat, fish and bakery counters. There are so many noises from people, phones, tannoys, music, fridges humming and alarms going off. Most shops use bright artificial lights to highlight produce but these lights can be very difficult for people who are sensitive to light. This is just a small example of some of the issues that make a supermarket environment difficult.
Shops are unpredictable. Whole aisles change from one day to the next and specific products you want may not be available that day. Change to routine, even very minor changes, can be very difficult for some autistic people.
How someone copes when they are overloaded will differ from one person to the next. Some will shutdown, some meltdown and others like my son appear to be overexcited and get very hyperactive.
The National Autistic Society campaign Too Much Information is a great place to find out more about why shopping can be difficult for autistic people. It includes some great videos which I really recommend you watch.
Quiet Hours & Slow Shopping
Autistic people are not the only ones to struggle with shopping. Many elderly people find it difficult particularly when a shop is very busy and people are rushing around. Many people with disabilities can find shops overwhelming or difficult for a number of different reasons. If someone suffers from anxiety a busy shop can make this worse, I could go on but I think you get the idea.
For these reasons many shops are beginning to introduce slow shopping or quiet hours. This is dedicated times where staff will be more aware of customers who have difficulties with shopping and the environments may be adapted for that hour e.g. lower noise levels.
You can find more information about slow shopping here – Slow Shopping.
The Autism Hour
The National Autistic Society has introduced a mass autism hour. In 2018 Autism Hour will take place from Saturday 6th October – Saturday 13th October. The idea is for shops to provide one hour (more if possible) during that week where they make small changes to support autistic customers.
Shops can sign up with the National Autistic Society and register the time of their autism hour. This will be added to a national map that everyone can search to see which local shops are providing an autism hour for that week. Yes an hour is not ideal and will not be a suitable time for everyone but it is a step in the right direction.
The most important element of Autism Hour is providing information to staff and creating more autism awareness. As a parent of an autistic child I realise that I can’t expect strangers to understand my child’s behaviours and actions but a little bit of awareness goes a long way in terms of support.
The Too Much Information campaign poster on the link below is a great way to start informing people about autism:
What can shops do to support autistic customers?
There are simple steps that a store can take to provide a ‘quiet hour’ this includes:
- Dimming lights where possible
- Reducing controllable noise. This could be as simple as no music, avoiding tannoy use and use phones off the shop floor.
- Removing obstacles, no boxes on the floor, avoid having staff blocking aisles with cages in that hour.
- Making staff more aware of different customers needs.
- Giving customers more processing time, they may need a minute to respond to a question.
- Have a quiet area or room available if needed
To provide an autism hour the key is to make staff more autism aware. Customers with autism may act unpredictably, such as noises, actions and behaviour. It is important that staff put aside personal judgement and treat customers kindly and provide any support they require. Being attentive to customer needs is a vital skill for good customer service.
When someone is struggling commenting on their behaviour, a lack of parental control, giving looks of pity, staring or tutting are all just ways to make a situation worse. A simple smile and ‘can I help you’ is all most customers require autistic or not. If a customer is struggling make it easier for them not harder.
However a customer behaves (repeated touching of items, making loud noises) or whatever they say, their shopping experience is always important to them so it is vital that supermarkets take it seriously. Encouraging staff to respect everyone and remember you don’t know their story. It’s as simple as not judging people or their actions and just being friendly and helpful to everyone.
Why shops should provide a quiet hour
Autism is one of many hidden disabilities. According to the National Autistic Society, 700,000 people are on the autistic spectrum in the UK. This figure represents more than 1% of the population in the UK. Customers with hidden disabilities need to be accommodated. It may be that spend and footfall increases in quiet hours.
Some statistics from the National Autistic Society that provide an insight as to why quiet hours are necessary:
Over 99% of people have heard of autism but only 16% of autistic people feel the public understand them.
79% of autistic people and 70% of their families feel socially isolated.
28% of autistic people have been asked to leave a public space for reasons associated with their autism.
How to help an autistic child with going to the supermarket?
I work in a supermarket and I still avoid taking my autistic son. Every parent knows it’s easier to do the shopping without your kids and when your child has a real difficulty with shopping it can be a really tough experience. Unfortunately there are many reasons why we still have to take our kids shopping so here are some tips that have helped me out.
Use visual aids to give the child warning about where they are going and what they will be doing. A visual aid can just be a photo. Many young autistic children struggle with language and find pictures much easier to process. You can also use a visual to provide focus when you are out like the shopping list below.
Have you tried social stories yet? A social story can be a great way to introduce and share information with an autistic child.