22 Nov 2017

Oz supermarket 'quiet hour' for autism spectrum

5:31 pm on 22 November 2017

A major supermarket chain in Australia is rolling out a weekly quiet hour for people on the autism spectrum - and New Zealand's autism association hopes the idea could take hold here.

no cap

Photo: Creative Commons / Darren.notley

For individuals on the autism spectrum, the bright lights and loud sounds of a busy supermarket can cause sensory overload.

In response to customer feedback, Autism Spectrum Australia (Aspect) in partnership with major supermarket chain Coles, has rolled out 'Quiet Hour' in 68 supermarket stores to make the shopping experience a little easier.

After a successful trial in August, the initiative aims to prevent sensory overload by dimming the lights by 50 per cent, turning off the radio, turning down register and scanner volumes, avoiding PA announcements and avoiding trolley collections.

People on the autism spectrum can find it difficult to process sensory information and can find sounds, light, smell, touch and taste overwhelming.

Some even said they would sometimes avoid supermarkets as a result.

Autism New Zealand chief executive Dane Dougan said the organisation had done some work with service providers around providing different spaces for people. Riccarton mall in Christchurch provided spaces with dimmed lights and the organisation had worked with hair salons in Petone in Wellington, to provide quiet spaces with low lighting.

He said the organisation had a close relationship with its Australian counterpart and planned to discuss how they worked with Coles supermarket. The Australia idea was great and he hoped to start a conversation about shopping spaces in New Zealand, he said.

"It could be a good commercial decision for all supermarkets. If they do get it right they are probably going to get more people coming through the gates."

He also said there was increasing interest in provisions for those with autism.

"What we're seeing is people in the early childhood centres are looking to get training to interact with children with autism. We're seeing far more interest."

Aspect community engagement and operations officer Linzi Coyle said the modifications were achieving a "no-judgement shopping space" where people on the spectrum and their families can feel comfortable and welcome.

"With autism affecting one in 100 Australians, expanding this low-sensory shopping experience … will have a significant improvement on the lives of many children, young people and adults on the spectrum, as well as their family members," she wrote on the organisation's website.

The programme will take place from 10.30 to 11.30 am every Tuesday at 68 stores. All customers are invited to participate.

Aspect has also trained team members to "increase their understanding of sensory overload and how to best respond to customer needs".

Autism Australia national manager Melissa Webster told the ABC during the trial in August that there had been a lot of positive feedback from people who had been to the stores.

"One of the mums that went with an eight-year-old child spoke to one of the Coles workers and said that, for the first time, she's ... been able to take her son around Coles and the hardest decision for her was what to choose for dinner and not focus on people looking at her because her son was having a meltdown and being genuinely quite upset.

"She said usually she could only last a couple of minutes in the supermarket but on this particular occasion she was 40 minutes going around."

Ms Webster said the feedback from other customers was the programme had made "a big difference to their shopping experience".

It has also had a flow on effect for other customers, particularly the elderly population, who said they felt more comfortable with less crowds.