Why a low-sensory Autism Hour can help make shopping less of a meltdown magnet

Why a low-sensory Autism Hour can help make shopping less of a meltdown magnet

You've all heard by now of various shops and supermarkets having an 'Autism Hour'. It's where background musak is silenced, lights are dimmer than usual and conditions are generally more suited to autistic shoppers being able to visit without the prospect of additional sensory stresses (other than shopping in the first place).

My own personal solution is to shop online but for others, a trip out is needed or even wanted.

The National Autistic Society is supporting stores across the country to host their own Autism Hour between 6-13 October.

To tell us more about it is vlogger, Kevin Chapman. Kevin's is a full-time YouTuber, author, podcaster, speaker and occasional teacher from Peterborough, UK. He's the father of an autistic son, Andy. Kevin releases daily vlogs on various topics including life as an autism family.

Why a low-sensory Autism Hour can help make shopping less of a meltdown magnet

By Kevin Chapman

When our, then 12-year-old, son Andy started refusing to go to school a few years ago, we thought we’d hit the lowest point our family could get to. Andy is on the autism spectrum and this was the unhappiest we’d ever seen him, and the knock-on effects were making it hard for us to help him through it.

My partner, Anna, had to give up her place at university because she had to be at home during the day to look after Andy and the two of them had effectively become trapped in our living room 24/7. The only time they ever got to leave was when they took a trip to the local shops.

Supermarket traumas

It was on one of these trips to a local supermarket that we realised there was still room for things to get worse for us – Andy became so overwhelmed with being unable to find what he was looking for, on top of a sensory overload, that he couldn’t cope with the situation anymore and went in to meltdown. For Andy, this involves taking off all of his clothes, shouting a lot and lying on the floor. I was at work at the time nearly 10 miles away, with our family’s only car.

Anna is only five-foot-tall, roughly the same size as Andy, and they’d walked a little over a mile to the shop. We know from experience that the only thing that will help Andy at times like this is to get home in his bedroom where he can calm himself down. But there was no way for Anna for get him there, without any clothes on and feeling too overwhelmed to walk home.

It took Anna a little while to get hold of me at work. I was a teacher at the time, so didn’t have my phone with me in my lesson and by the time I got to them, Andy had been naked on the floor of the supermarket for nearly 20 minutes. Even together, we couldn’t get him dressed, so all we could do was drape a coat over him and carry him across the car park to our car for the journey home.

Autism Hour

We firmly believe that the sensory overload a typical shopping experience can lead to was a major contributing factor to what happened that day. I feel that if it had happened during the National Autistic Society’s Autism Hour that things wouldn’t have gone as far as they did. They’re working with shops across the country to help them hold Autism Hours between 6 and 13 October. This means familiarising staff with autism and taking simple steps, like turning down music, dimming bright lights, and sharing information about autism.

Unfortunately, Autism Hour didn’t exist at the time, and this incident actually led to Anna and Andy barely leaving the house at all for the following year. Anna was no longer comfortable taking Andy to the shops by herself.

These days we have to be much more considered with our shopping trips. We always plan them well in advance, with Andy. He needs to know where we’re going, what we’re going for, and he then counts the number of things we put in the trolley! He gets very distressed if we make it into double figures, or don’t stick to the pre-arranged amount.

More positively, he’s developed a love of supermarket checkouts in recent years, so we’re able to use them as a reward for a good shopping trip – if we make it to the end of our list (which we didn’t always manage to do in the early days) he gets rewarded by getting to see them put through the till.

Raising autism awareness

Autism Hour is very important to our family because it lessens the sensory overload and even more importantly, it raises awareness of autism in shops and with the general public.

We were very lucky with the incident I’ve described here, because the member of staff in the Co-op supermarket was very understanding and helpful, despite having a naked 12-year-old boy lying down in their store entrance for 20 minutes.

They checked if he was OK, asked if there was anything could do to help and were very patient with the situation while everyone waited for me to travel there from work. Our long term hope for Autism Hour is that shops consider the needs of autistic people more than they do currently, like the staff at the Co-op did that day.

Our biggest difficulty with shopping is when products are moved around the store, seemingly at random and often without changing the signs above aisles that describe what’s in them. This causes real problems for Andy. If he knows we’re going to the shops to buy crisps, he’ll go to the crisps aisle and it’s distressing if that aisle is now breakfast cereal but still labelled crisps. He’s then very reluctant to walk around the shop looking for where the crisps have gone; he can’t stand the repetitiveness of just going up and down aisles without a purpose. Despite some of these ongoing challenges, shopping is a more positive experience for us, especially during Autism Hour as it allows us to go the shops together as a family, something we rarely do otherwise.

The National Autistic Society’s Autism Hour, supported by The Entertainer, takes place between 6 and 13 October. Find out more by visiting: www.autism.org.uk/AutismHour

Watch Kevin's Autism Hour Vlog

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Tania Tirraoro

Tania Tirraoro

Founder, CEO at Special Needs Jungle
Founder of Special Needs Jungle. Parent of two sons with Asperger Syndrome.
Journalist & author of two novels and a guide to SEN statementing. PR & social media expert. Rare Disease & chronic pain patient advocate.
Tania Tirraoro

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