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Purple’s Autism Awareness training for retail staff – what’s in store? (Get it? Store? – see what we did there?)

Shopping! – love it or hate it, you have to do it. Whether it’s a trip to the shopping centre, a food shop at the local supermarket or even online shopping, it is something that we all have to do at some time or another. On the whole, it is something we don’t really think about, just an everyday part of life and something we take for granted. However, for many adults and children on the Autism Spectrum, shopping can be an extremely difficult experience. Young people and adults have described it as overwhelming, frightening, and stressful, causing high levels of anxiety. Parents we have worked with have described shopping with their child as an absolute nightmare and reflect that what is often perceived as their child being ‘naughty’, is actually their very distressed child letting them know that they are not coping with their surroundings.

The National Autistic Society conducted a survey as part of their Too Much Information campaign* which showed that 64% of people on the autism spectrum avoided the shops. Additionally and shamefully, it also showed that 28% of autistic people have been asked to leave a public place for reasons associated with their autism. This is just so wrong. There needs to be a changing of perception, practice and raising of awareness for these statistics to change for the better. What is clear is that with a few simple steps, the shopping experience can become far more positive and inclusive for all. This is why we have written our course – Autism Awareness for Retail. It is not possible to completely understand how shopping may feel – we all feel things differently, however, gaining even a small insight into another’s experience can give us the opportunity to raise our own awareness, be less judgemental, less patronising and react in a far more understanding and appropriate way.

How we relate and understand others, participate in everyday situations and interact socially can be so much harder if you are on the autism spectrum. There are unfamiliar and unpredictable social interactions, unwritten rules and overwhelming sensory experiences. New events or changing environments can increase anxiety due to their unpredictability. Previous negative social interactions can lead to high levels of anxiety and fear and understanding other’s points of view and the social ‘rules’ can be confusing and overwhelming

Just stop and think for a minute – focus on the sounds, smells, sights and feelings around you – what is happening? The TV jabbering away to itself, a clock ticking loudly, a light flickering, dinner smells? Probably a whole host of sensory experiences. Imagine what it could be like if you were at the shops – as an adult or a child – not able to filter any of this sensory feedback, perhaps not understanding what you were feeling yourself. The smells are over powering…someone is standing too close to you…really bright lights that hurt…a baby crying…music playing in a shop…tannoy announcements – the list is endless. Would you want to put yourself in that position again? How would you react?

Many people develop their own strategies which help them manage their own anxieties, such as covering their ears to reduce noise levels. However, some reactions can be more challenging such as a child screaming loudly to block out the noise of the buzzing lights above. Both are a way of reducing sensory feedback and communicating distress when every-day experiences have become too much. Our training for retail staff includes raising awareness around ASD and Sensory Processing Difficulties and gives practical knowledge to build confidence and skills in how to support customers or their children who may be experiencing sensory overload. 

In 2018, more than 10,000 shops and businesses signed up to Autism Hour, where stores took practical, simple steps towards a more autism friendly environment. This included playing less music, dimming the lights and raising awareness amongst employees. In fact some supermarkets such as Morrison’s have already introduced this on a weekly basis and other stores such as Sainsbury’s and Asda are also taking practical steps to help reduce anxiety and sensory overload. It is a great start and hopefully these steps will become part of an every-day shopping experience that will lead to greater understanding and inclusivity for all.

Purple Parenting is running an Autism Awareness for Retail course on Thursday 11th February 2019 9.30-12.30pm at Bluewater. Contact us at info@purpleparenting.co.uk for more details, or click here to book your space.