What is Autism Hour and why will shops be quieter this weekend?

From today, retailers across the UK will be holding a ‘quiet hour’ to offer a calmer shopping environment for people with autism.

Taking a trip to the supermarket can be overwhelming for a person with autism.

Between beeping tills, noisy shopping trolleys, crowds of shoppers and bright lights, what most of us see as a routine errand can be a stressful sensory experience for those with the developmental disorder.

In fact, 64% of autistic people say they avoid the shops completely, according to the The National Autistic Society, and 28% admit that they have been asked to leave a public place for reasons associated with their autism.

There are around 700,000 autistic adults and children in the UK, as well as three million family members and carers, and those with the disability can be especially hypersensitive to sounds, smells and sights.

But starting today and during the coming week, autistic shoppers and their carers in the UK will be able to take to the aisles without fear, as up to 10,000 retailers are estimated to be taking part in what’s known as ‘Autism Hour’.

Every year, on the second week of October, retailers are encouraged to take simple steps to make their businesses more autism-friendly, so people who struggle with sensory overload can shop with ease.

Shopping centres, post offices, supermarkets, coffee shops and high street retailers across the country have pledged to make simple changes for at least one hour, between today and next Saturday, October 13.

This includes everything from turning down music and other audio triggers, to dimming the lights and providing training and information about autism to employees.

The campaign was set up by The National Autistic Society in a bid to drive awareness around autism, and challenge retailers to think about how they can make their spaces more accessible to autistic shoppers.

This is the second year of Autism Hour, and the society estimates that 10,000 retailers will take part, including The Entertainer, Pets at Home, Sainsbury’s, Argos, Lloyds Bank, Halifax, Bank of Scotland, Co-op and Schuh.

Just like everyone else, autistic people and their families want to have the option of going to shops, whether to grab their food items, buy a coffee or simply meet up and browse with friends – and the National Autistic Society are confident that the week will allow them to do so more easily.

If you’re keen to get involved, the National Autistic Society has a handy page on their website (autism.org.uk) which can help you to find local participating shops and retailers.

Autism primarily affects how people perceive the world and interact with others.

Every person on the spectrum is different, but people may be particularly oversensitive to the sounds, touch, tastes, smells, light or colours in a busy supermarket.

The National Autistic Society say that a person who struggles to deal with everyday sensory information can experience information overload, leading to stress, withdrawal or meltdown.

“I rarely go into supermarkets,” says Springwatch presenter Chris Packham, who was diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome in 2005.

“I find that environment really challenging, all of the bright lights, the confusion of the enormous complexity of goods in there, plus all the smells and the sounds. It’s a difficult environment.”

People with autism may also be prone to developing rituals. They can get very attached to doing things the same way each time, and can get extremely upset if their routines are disturbed by spontaneous outings, like shopping trips.

It can also be hard for some autistic people to understand the need to go to the shops, what will happen during shopping and how long the experience will last.

Jo Lewis, a mum who lives in Market Harborough with her husband and their two autistic daughters, 13-year-old Holly and 12-year-old Katie, says that Autism Hour is crucial for her family.

She says: “Shopping means planning. My autistic daughters don’t like strong smells, crowds, noise, social interaction, waiting, overwhelming choices and the unexpected. I generally shop online but feel very strongly that the girls should experience everyday situations. Shopping is one of the many tasks they will have to manage themselves as adults.

“I distinctly recall one specific trip to a shopping centre last year. It was busy, loud, people were stopping in random places, there were strange smells and it was too warm. Holly removed her jacket, complaining of feeling hot and sick, before clinging to me whilst covering her ears. We were inside less than five minutes before rushing out.

“We planned a shopping trip during the National Autistic Society’s Autism Hour in 2017. I felt a huge weight was lifted as we anticipated a more relaxed environment and it lived up to our expectations. In a Clarks store, they said they could accommodate autistic needs on any day and that we could even go at closing time when the store is quiet; we just had to let them know. Holly said, ‘If shopping could always be like that, I would go more often.’

“As Holly approaches 14, her friends often plan shopping trips. If more of the larger shops joined in and they could go during the National Autistic Society’s Autism Hour, Holly might have the confidence to join them.”

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