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Where

Does Autism Hour Mean Sensory Friendly Shopping for All?

Have you seen a store promote autism hour?  Do shops in your community promote sensory-friendly shopping times?  Curious about what autism hour is and means and why it’s popularity is growing?   Are you surprised when people say they do not have autism, but still shop and come in to shop during autism hour? This article provides the answers.

Autism is a developmental disorder, which means it starts in early childhood, even infancy, and causes difficulty in daily life.  Symptoms of autism may only become more apparent as a child grows. Autism is life-long.

Autism causes difficulties with a person’s behavior, their communication, their interests and their daily activities.  People with autism often have difficulty with changes in a daily routine. They might want to repeat things, and they might have limited interests.  They also likely struggle with social situations as well as communicating and finally they often have difficulty with their senses.

Given all of these possible difficulties, going out to shop can be especially challenging for people with autism.

Autism hour is a specific time that designed to be more comfortable for people with autism and their families to go shopping.  Sometimes more than one store or shopping location join together to offer autism hour at the same time across different places.

What is Sensory Friendly Shopping?

Sensory friendly shopping helps people who have a sensory impairment or sensory processing disorder, which may be someone with autism or may be someone with another disorder, disability or difference.

 

Sensory Friendly grocery shopping

Not all stores offer the same sensory-friendly shopping experience.

Sensory friendly shopping is often very similar if not identical to autism hour. However there can be differences between them.

The table below compares autism hour to sensory-friendly shopping. In general, sensory friendly shopping aims to make the shopping experience less busy, noisy and bright for shoppers.  Sensory refers to the senses.  And friendly refers to making shopping more agreeable and accessible to shoppers.

Feature

Autism Hour

Sensory Friendly Shopping

Explanation

AppointmentYesYesCreate appointment times for shoppers to control the number of people in the store or space
Noise down or offYesYesAll unnecessary noises are turned down or off

e.g. no background music

Adjust lightsYesYesReduce or eliminate:

-spot lights

-shining lights

-moving lights

-fluorescent lights

Limit shoppersYesYesOverall number of shoppers is limited
Sensory RoomYesYesThe location has a sensory room with toys and sensory equipment designed for children to enjoy sensory-motor play
Noise-cancelling headphones or earmuffsYesYesNoise cancelling headphones are offered to allow shoppers to wear to block out noise
Quiet HoursYesYesSpecific times when the noise level is reduced at the location
Quiet RoomYesYesSometimes noise in the whole place cannot be reduced, but a specific room is designed as quiet and that room can have reduced noise
Sensory Backpack or Sensory KitYesYesContains items like noise-cancelling headphones, fidget toys, weighted lap pad, chewable jewelry, drink container with a straw, candy or gum, putty or playdoh
Sensory Story

 

MaybeYesProvide a Sensory Story.  Sensory Stories are commonly used for children with sensory processing disorder to explain what sensory experience to expect.
Sensory-Friendly MapYesYesA map that shows specific areas that are nosier, busier or brighter or that have a strong sensory component like smells.  The map also might show where a sensory room or quiet room is located.
Social Story

 

YesMaybeSocial Stories™ are often used for people with autism to explain what to expect in social situation.
Staff TrainingYesYesAdditional staff training has occurred so staff learn how to help people with autism or for sensory-friendly many other disabilities
Visual scheduleYesMaybe A visual list that might be written or in pictures that tells or shows the sequence of events that will occur at store

Who Offers Sensory Friendly Shopping, Including Autism

It might surprise you to learn that sensory friendly shopping is offered by different types of stores.  These places may offer sensory-friendly shopping:

  • department store
  • grocery store
  • market
  • pop-up store
  • retail store
  • shopping center
  • shopping mall
  • specialty store
  • supermarket
  • strip mall

Who Goes to Sensory Friendly Shopping?

Over 33% of the population is likely to experience something called sensory overload in daily life.  For some people, a disorder (like autism), disability or difference is the cause of their sensory overload.   For other people, they just prefer less noise, less light and fewer crowds.  Shopping can be a sensory-rich experience.  There is a lot to see, hear, taste, touch and smell while shopping, and many people enjoy that.  On the other hand, many people, including people who experience sensory overload, shopping can be unpleasant because of the sensory-rich experiences.  Following are the types of disorders, disabilities or differences that can contribute to people experiencing sensory overload:

  • Alzheimer’s Disease (AD)
  • Anxiety
  • Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD)
  • Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder (ADHD)
  • Autism, Asperger’s, Autism Spectrum Disorder, High functioning autism
  • Concussion, Post-concussion Syndrome (PCS)
  • Dementia
  • Echolalia
  • Fibromyalgia
  • Hearing loss, hard of hearing
  • Highly sensitive person (HSP)
  • Intellectual disability (ID)
  • Learning disability (LD)
  • Lewy-Body Dementia
  • Low vision, vision loss
  • Meniere’s disease
  • Mental disorders, mental illness
  • Myalgic encephalomyelitis/chronic fatigue syndrome (ME/CFS)
  • Non-verbal learning disability (NVLD)
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
  • Sensory disorder
  • Sensory integration disorder (SID)
  • Sensory processing disorder (SPD)
  • Synesthesia
  • Tourette’s syndrome
  • Trauma, early childhood trauma
  • Vestibular disorder

Why do People go to Sensory Friendly Shopping?

Sensory overload means that the senses are overloaded.  Sensory means your senses. Overload in this context means overwhelmed or overstimulated or simply too much information coming to your senses.

Did you know that you have more than five senses (what you see, hear, taste, touch and smell)?

You have a sense of balance, called your vestibular sense.  Your sense of balance keeps you from falling over.

You also have a sense of movement, called proprioception.  Your sense of movement tells your brain where your body is in space and lets you coordinate moving your muscles and joints.

You also have an eighth sense called interoception.  That is the sense your internal organs.  Interoception lets you know when you are hungry, thirsty or need to go to the bathroom.

When sensory-friendly shopping is offered, shoppers are less likely to experience sensory overload.  And by going shopping during those times, shoppers often expect less judgement if they or a family member have difficulty with the experience.

Sensory Rich Shopping

People with sensitivities can still enjoy shopping or at least have an experience that is less overwhelming.

Shopping can be sensory-rich, there is often a lot of noise and bright lights. There can be strong smells. Even pleasant ones like fresh bread from a bakery can cause sensory overload and be overwhelming.

Sensory overload means that at least one, but often more than one sense, is receiving too much information.  Shopping causes sensory overload because it is sensory-rich and people with sensory overload find it unpleasant to be in a places that is noisy, busy, crowded and bright. They find moving around with many people difficult.  They might worry about being able to access the bathroom.   

How Does a Retailer Create a Sensory Friendly Shopping Experience?

The following list will help get you started creating a sensory friendly shopping experience. This list of recommendations when implemented will make shopping more comfortable for people with other disorders, disabilities or differences.

The first thing to do is to ensure your facility follows standards and laws regarding accessibility. Different countries, states, provinces, or municipalities have different standards regarding accessibility and accommodation of people with disability, it is important that you consult and follow them too.

Create sensory friendly shopping by doing these things:

  • Adjust the lighting to be less bright
  • Allow guide dogs and service animals
  • Anticipate more children
  • Avoid dynamic or moving lights
  • Create a quiet room or quiet area if overall noise cannot be reduced
  • Diminish glare
  • Ensure your facility meets all municipal, provincial or state and national accessibility standards or laws
  • Give staffextra  training on helping people with disability
  • Involve your head office or corporate office to get everyone on board
  • Let shoppers know if there are sensory-rich areas in your store
  • Limit the overall number of shoppers
  • Loan noise cancelling headphones
  • Make available sensory bags or sensory kits
  • Offer access to drinking water
  • Provide manual wheelchairs, motorized shopping carts or shopping carts with special disability seats
  • Provide shoppers with “lone” fruits to snack on during their visit
  • Reduce or eliminate scents
  • Seek the input of your staff about what to changes they can make in their own departments
  • Tell shoppers what to expect
  • Turn the volume level down or off on anything unnecessary.

Fluorescent lights in the store can be particularly bothersome to people.  As can lights that move or shimmer.  Spotlights can also cause sensory overload.  Adjusting the lighting in stores can make the experience more sensory-friendly.  Using natural light, but reducing glare from the sun with shades is very helpful.

Expect that shoppers with disability are more likely to have guide dogs and service animals.  Making sure your facility meets accessibility standards is paramount.  Have some wheelchairs, motorized shopping carts and shopping carts with disability seats for children onsite and available.   Limiting the overall number of shoppers also creates more space for everyone to move around.

Extra staff training to teach the team about disabilities and how to help shoppers with disability is also key.  Involve the team in suggesting ways they can make their department or area more sensory-friendly.  Involve head office or your stores corporate office so that everyone is onboard and helpful.  Team members have great knowledge about their particular departments and services and often come up with more ideas to make the shopping experience sensory-friendly.  You should also expect that more shoppers with children will visit during sensory-friendly shopping hours.

Reducing noise is incredibly important during sensory-friendly shopping.  Turn off music playing the background.  Turn off noisy equipment.  Turn off or turn down the beeps of cash registers and scanners.  Avoid tasks that are noisy during sensory-friendly shopping like collecting shopping carts which make noise when they bang together.  If you cannot turn off unnecessary sounds in the whole store or location, then create a quiet room or quiet area where sounds can be turned off.  Consider loaning out noise cancelling headphones.  Sensory bags or sensory kits (see the table below for ideas of what to put inside) are also very helpful for children who experience sensory overload.

Ensure you have clean and accessible bathrooms.  Make sure you have drinking water onsite.  And for grocery stores, offer free “single” fruits.  It helps you eliminate waste and helps shoppers too.  Hungry and thirsty shoppers are not happy shoppers.

Let shoppers know if there are sensory-rich areas in your store.  Sometimes you cannot reduce where strong smells (even pleasant ones like baking) might be present if they cannot be reduced or eliminated.  Finally, tell, show and write out what sensory-friendly changes you have made so shoppers know what to expect.

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