Supermarkets can be an enormous challenge: all those brightly coloured, branded goods, fluorescent lights and loud music. The sensory overload of large supermarkets can fray the steadiest of nerves. But for people who are on the autistic spectrum or with heightened sensory skills, this kind of environment is really daunting.
Simon Lea is the Manager at one of Manchester’s Asda supermarkets. He recently witnessed a little boy having what he called, “a complete meltdown” in his branch. Being the father of two children, Simon was, like most parents, familiar with the scene: he had experienced this exact scenario with his own children on more than one occasion.
Knowing that distraction is one of the ways of dealing with moments of challenging behaviour with his own children, Simon offered the young lad a football that he happened to be carrying and a couple of “goodwill” vouchers, and noticed these helped to calm the youngster.
Simon told us, “The boy’s mother looked as if she might be at the end of her tether, like she’d really had enough.” It was only after the incident that she told him that her son was on the autistic spectrum and found supermarket shopping environments really difficult. Simon’s response – reaching out to help rather than judge – proved to be a real gesture of friendship and understanding.
That afternoon, Simon went home and did some research on the internet. He found out about how stressful supermarkets can be for people on the autistic spectrum. Simon also discovered that shopping was also an issue for someone closer to home, someone he regularly worked with. “One of my colleagues happened to mention that she also had a child on the autistic spectrum,” says Simon. “She told me: ‘I never take my son shopping as it is too difficult for both of us.’” Simon himself also lives with anxiety, which he has learned to manage, so he had direct experience of how overwhelming an experience shopping can be.
When Simon started thinking about a way of changing the in-store experience, he came up with the idea of creating a “Quiet hour”. So far trialling only in his branch, the store now turns off escalators, music, displays and other electronic devices that can be stressful for some people.
[x_blockquote cite=”” type=”center”]For one hour every Saturday morning, this branch of Asda is an oasis of calm with dimmed lights and minimal distractions. Although the scheme is a pilot, Simon is keen to roll the “Quiet hour” out across branches.[/x_blockquote]
The story of how the “Quiet hour” came about was picked up by local radio and has since gone viral on social media. But Simon is keen to spread the word even further and reach out to more people. He has plans to target mother and baby groups, older communities and others who would prefer a calmer shopping environment.
To make his shop floor even more accessible, Simon recently invested in two special trollies that enable parents to maintain eye contact with their child while shopping, thus reducing anxiety in both parties. At the cost of £400 each, they are big outlay for the store. But Simon feels they will be worth the expenditure if they result in a less fraught, more relaxing experience for families.
“Quiet hour” is a ground-breaking move by the supermarket giant and what was designed to meet the needs of people on the autistic spectrum has proved to be of immense value to many other people. If more shops adapt their environments and adopt the scheme, it will make a very real difference to people’s lives leading to happier, more inclusive and livable communities.