Autism Hour vs. Sensory-Friendly Shopping

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Have you heard about autism hour?  Or, sensory-friendly shopping times?  Maybe you have seen a store promote a special autism hour? 

Alternatively, do shops in your community promote sensory-friendly shopping times?  Curious about what autism hour is?  Are you wondering what it means and why its popularity is growing?   Finally, 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 you with answers.

Two kids buying toys in toy store close to a shelf with figures

What does autism hour mean?

First, know that autism is a life-long developmental disorder.  That means it starts in early childhood, even infancy, and causes difficulty in daily life.  Furthermore, symptoms of autism may only become more apparent as a child grows.

Autism causes difficulties with a person’s behavior, communication, interests, and daily activities.  As a result, autistic people often have difficulty with changes in daily routines.  For example, they might want to repeat things, and they might have limited interests.  What is more, they also likely struggle with social situations as well as communication.  Finally, and critical to autism hour, they often have difficulty with their senses.

Given all of these possible difficulties, going out to shop can be a challenge for autistic persons.

So, autism hour is a specific time designed to be more comfortable for people with autism.  Furthermore, it helps their families shop with them too.  For instance, sometimes stores join together to offer autism hour at the same time across different locations.

Next, what is sensory-friendly shopping?

Sensory-friendly shopping helps people who have a sensory impairment or sensory processing disorder.  In short, a person living with autism or someone with a hidden disability might benefit from sensory-friendly shopping.

However, not all stores offer the same sensory-friendly shopping experience.

Sensory-friendly shopping is similar to autism hour.  Sometimes it is identical to autism hour. Nonetheless, there can be differences between them.

For example, sensory-friendly shopping aims to make the shopping experience less busy, noisy, and bright for all shoppers.  And sensory refers to the senses.  Subsequently, friendly refers to making shopping more agreeable and accessible to shoppers.

On the other hand, autism hour is catered more to people with autism.  You can dive deep into autism, anxiety and sensory overload to learn more.

The table below compares autism hour to sensory-friendly shopping.


Autism Hour

Sensory Friendly Shopping



Yes Yes Appointment times for shoppers to control the number of people in the space

Noise down or off

Yes Yes Turn down or off all noise

e.g. no background music

Adjust lights

Yes Yes Reduce or eliminate:


-shining lights

-moving lights

-fluorescent lights

Limit shoppers

Yes Yes The overall number of shoppers is limited

Sensory Room

Yes Yes Add a sensory room.  It has fidgets,  toys and/or sensory equipment designed for children to enjoy sensory-motor play

Noise-canceling headphones or earmuffs

Yes Yes Provide (rent, sell) noise-canceling headphones to listen to music or earmuffs to block out sounds are offered.

Quiet Hours

Yes Yes Specific times when the noise level is reduced.

Quiet Room

Yes Yes Sometimes the noise in the whole place cannot be reduced.  So, a specific room is quiet.

Sensory Backpack or Sensory Kit

Yes Yes Contains items like noise-canceling earmuffs, fidgets, weighted lap toys,  drink containers with a straw, candy or gum, putty, or playdoh.

 Story:  a sensory story

Maybe Yes Sensory Stories are commonly used for children with sensory processing disorder to explain what sensory experience to expect.  Read an example of a sensory story visiting Santa.

Sensory-Friendly Map

Yes Yes A map that shows specific areas that are noisier, busier, or brighter.  In addition, places that have a strong sensory component like smells.  The map also might show where a sensory room or quiet room is located.

Social Story

Yes Maybe Social Stories™ are often used for people with autism to explain what to expect in a social situation.

Staff Training

Yes Yes Additional staff training.  Thus, staff learns how to help people with disabilities like autism.  And how to be sensory-friendly.

Visual schedule

Yes Maybe A visual list that might be written. Alternatively in pictures.  It tells or shows the sequence of events that will occur at the store.

Who offers sensory-friendly shopping?

Meanwhile, it might surprise you to learn that sensory-friendly shopping is offered by different types of stores. 

For example, 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?

Critically, over 33% of the population is likely to experience something called sensory overload in daily life.  Hence, for some people, a disorder (like autism), disability, or difference in the way they perceive through the senses is the cause of their sensory overload.   On the other hand, for other people, they just prefer less noise, less light, and fewer crowds.  Besides, 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.  In contrast, many people, including people who experience sensory overload, shopping can be unpleasant because of sensory-rich experiences.  

Why do people go to sensory-friendly shopping?

Sensory overload means that the senses are overloaded.  And, sensory means your senses.  Furthermore, 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)?

Your sense of balance is called your vestibular sense.  So, your sense of balance keeps you from falling over.

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

Lastly, you also have an eighth sense called interoception.  That is the sense of your internal organs.  Importantly, interoception lets you know when you are hungry, thirsty, or need to go to the bathroom.  So you have more than five senses.

When sensory-friendly shopping is offered, shoppers are less likely to experience sensory overload.  Most importantly, by going shopping during those times, shoppers often expect less judgment 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 a less overwhelming experience.

So, shopping can be sensory-rich, there is often a lot of noise and bright lights.  There can be strong smells. However, 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.  Specifically, shopping causes sensory overload because it is sensory-rich and people with sensory overload find it unpleasant to be in a place that is noisy, busy, crowded, and bright.  Additionally, they find moving around with many people difficult.  Finally, they might worry about being able to access the bathroom.   

How does a store create a sensory-friendly shopping experience?

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

First, ensure your facility follows standards and laws regarding accessibility.  Moreover, different countries, states, provinces, or municipalities have different standards regarding accessibility.  You must consult and follow those accommodations for people with disabilities.

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 staff extra  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-canceling 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 departments
  • Tell shoppers what to expect
  • Turn the volume level down or off on anything unnecessary

Explanations of sensory-friendly shopping strategies:


Importantly, fluorescent lights, as well as lights that move or shimmer, can be particularly bothersome to people. Moreover, spotlights can also cause sensory overload.  Adjust the lighting in your stores to make the experience more sensory-friendly.  What is more, use natural light where possible.  In addition, consider that you made need to reduce glare from the sun with shades.


Expect that shoppers with disabilities are more likely to have guide dogs and service animals.  Thus, making sure your facility meets accessibility standards is paramount.  For example, some shops have wheelchairs, motorized shopping carts, and shopping carts with disability seats for children onsite and available. Also, 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 a disability is key.  Critically, involve the team in suggesting ways they can make their department or area more sensory-friendly.  Furthermore, involve head office or your stores’ corporate office.  Likewise, ensure that everyone is onboard and helpful.  Team members have great knowledge of their particular departments and services. Thus they often come up with more ideas to make the shopping experience sensory-friendly.  Finally, be prepared.  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.  First, turn off music playing the background.  Second, stop noisy equipment.  Third, shut off or turn down the beeps of cash registers and scanners.  Moreover, avoid tasks that are noisy during sensory-friendly shopping. That means things like collecting shopping carts.  For example, that makes noise when they bang together.  However, if you cannot turn off unnecessary sounds in the whole store or location, then create a quiet room.  Alternatively, a quiet area where sounds can be turned off.  Also, consider loaning out noise-canceling headphones.   Lastly, sensory bags or sensory kits (see the table below for ideas of what to put inside) are also very helpful. Especially so for children who experience sensory overload.

Taste, smell

First of all, ensure you have clean and accessible bathrooms. Also, make sure you have drinking water on site.  As an example for grocery stores, offer free “single” fruits.  It helps you eliminate food waste and helps shoppers too.  Besides, hungry or thirsty shoppers are not happy shoppers!  Nor are shoppers who cannot find or use the bathroom.


Next, let shoppers know if there are sensory-rich areas in your store.  Besides, 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.

Read about the rise of sensory-friendly shopping in Yahoo News.

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