Shopping and Autism

Shopping and Autism

Many autistic people struggle with shopping environments. Whilst every person with autism presents differently, many 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.  Shopping environments are full of different noises, smells and sounds and can easily cause an overload for people on the autistic spectrum.

Why can Shopping be difficult for some autistic people?


  • chemicals
  • bakery products
  • meat and fish counters


  • people
  • phones
  • tannoys
  • music
  • fridges humming
  • alarms going off


  • bright artificial lights to highlight produce
  • excessive light
  • flashing signs /lights

These are just a small example of some of the issues that make a supermarket / shopping environment difficult.

Shopping and Autism

Change to routine, even very minor changes, can be very difficult for some autistic people. Shops are unpredictable. Whole aisles change from one day to the next and specific products you want may not be available that day.

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.

Shopping and Autism

Quiet Hours & Slow Shopping

Autistic people are not the only ones to struggle with shopping.  Some 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.

You can also now get sunflower lanyards, often available from customer services at supermarkets. These lanyards indicate that the wearer has a hidden disability and may require extra support.

Autism Hour 2019

The National Autistic Society has introduced a mass autism hour.  In 2019 Autism Hour will take place from Saturday 5th October – Saturday 12th 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. 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:

Too Much Information Poster

Shopping and 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.
  • 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
Shopping and Autism

To provide an autism hour the key is to make staff more autism aware. Customers with autism may act unpredictably, this could be noises, actions and or 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 /lack of parental control, giving looks of pity, staring or tutting are all 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 shops take it seriously. When someone is anxious it is easy for that to be misinterpreted as being rude. 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.

National Autistic Society
Shopping and Autism

How to help an autistic child with going to the supermarket?

I used to work in a supermarket and I still avoided taking my 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 even harder.  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.

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.

A fantastic product that I reviewed is the Seekers magnetic scavenger hunt set. Brilliant to occupy your child in a constructive way at the supermarket.

Seekers Review
Seekers at the Supermarket

Have you tried social stories yet?  A social story can be a great way to introduce and share information with an autistic child. 

You will also find reading books about shopping, role playing and shopping related games will all be helpful.

You may also find my post about supporting autistic customers helpful.

If you sign up to my monthly newsletter you will get my free guide to autism therapies for young children.  Sign up here.

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  1. Deb's Decorative Life
    3rd October 2018 / 12:10 am

    I didn’t realize that over 700,000 people are on the autistic spectrum in the U.K.

    I love the idea of the Autism hour for shopping. It would be nice if all stores could provide this at least once a month.

    • admin
      3rd October 2018 / 8:41 am

      Hi Deb, I think 700,000 is a conservative number and probably much higher. That’s the reason autism awareness is so important as it is a hidden disability.

      I hope more shops take part in Autism Hour this year and it keeps on growing x

  2. admin
    3rd October 2018 / 8:42 am

    Thanks Cassie, it makes such a difference when people are more aware of each others needs.

  3. randommusings29
    6th October 2018 / 11:31 am

    This is a really great campaign as it’s so important everyone feels included in their community. I hope some of the shops around me take part

  4. 6th October 2018 / 3:25 pm

    What a great idea for shops to do this. Anything they can do to help even a little bit is a step in the right direction.

    • admin
      8th October 2018 / 9:11 pm

      couldn’t agree more xx

  5. 6th October 2018 / 6:38 pm

    My local co-op is introducing this, how exciting and much needed!

    • admin
      8th October 2018 / 9:11 pm

      Brilliant, it is great to see more and more shops taking part.

  6. 7th October 2018 / 9:01 am

    This is a really good idea and hopefully more stores recognise the difficulties people face when out shopping and make it a regular thing.

    • admin
      8th October 2018 / 9:10 pm

      I really hope so x

  7. 7th October 2018 / 10:41 am

    This is such a lovely idea. I didn’t know they did quiet hours. It makes perfect sense.

    • admin
      8th October 2018 / 9:10 pm

      Hopefully in the future it will be something all shops do on a regular basis.

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