As a parent of a child with autism (ASD) and global development delay, I fully appreciate the fact that tasks that are simple to other parents – mundane even – have become an ‘Everest’ in my life.

Shopping is one.

For years taking my son Alfie shopping and getting it done quickly with no major meltdowns or dramas was like throwing a pack of cards in the air and praying that none hit you on the head… optimistic stupidity at best.

The fluorescent lights were too bright, the tannoy and music too loud and crowds in general were a big no-no. It was all far too overwhelming and would regularly lead to a sensory overload.

Now, a sensory overload is not pretty. It is confusing, upsetting and can send your child into a state of total meltdown in under 5 seconds. And there is very little you can do to stop it once those triggers are switched, all you can do is provide a safe space (as much as possible) a soothing low voice and try to cut off the sensory stimuli – so a blanket over the head perhaps or hands over the ears or deep pressure hugs.

You learn to understand your child better than yourself in order to avoid those triggers as much as is humanly possible. Everything you do is micromanaged and you develop a keen sense of sensory danger and start weighing up the pros and cons of everyday activities with your child.

If it isn’t an urgent medical appointment or therapy (and later, school) then its not vital. Where there is a choice you tend to opt for what is best for them and disregard social stigma. We never went to birthday parties. We could only visit certain relatives and certain parks. No swimming, bowling or cinemas.

Shopping though – that was by far the worst.

I literally couldn’t go to a supermarket with him properly for 3 years. In fact, just the thought of it used to send me into a panic.

Everything had to be bought online or in smaller shops, and the few occasions where I HAD to take him out it was planned like a military operation, often ending in a meltdown accompanied by shocked stares of an uneducated crowd that thought he was just a naughty little boy.

Imagine trying to restrain a screaming, sobbing 5 year old, having what appears to everyone else to be a toddler temper tantrum (on steroids) whilst you wait in a queue for the tills. Most parents worst shopping nightmare was my reality. It was draining for us both.

So, I wholeheartedly welcome Autism Hour.

The National Autistic Society are behind the initiative – Autism Hour week. It runs every October (6th-13th in 2018) and during this week businesses are encouraged to make their space more autism friendly by having one allocated hour where;

• Bright lights are dimmed where it is safe to do so
• Tannoy’s and music are turned off and other noise is reduced
• Information about Autism is shared with their employees and the public in order to educate and help them understand more about it.

Plenty of large businesses these days preach about embracing inclusivity and diversity among its workforce – but what about among their customers?

Heads up:

If you are only catering to the mainstream and neurotypical customer needs, then it’s time to rethink your strategy and look to change.

Don’t get me wrong, my shopping experience with Alfie (if planned and executed correctly) has improved over the last year, but it’s still pot luck if we get in and out totally unscathed.

Businesses can help ease this pressure and create a better shopping environment by implementing the simple steps laid out in Autism Hour.

Okay, so it won’t solve every shopping problem, but it will definitely be a step in the right direction by removing and reducing some of the sensory aspects and raising awareness of autism to staff and other customers.

Ask yourself; Does your business put measures in place to ensure everyone can access your products / services equally?

If the answer is no and you want to create a more inclusive environment for ALL your customers, then just ask. I’m more than happy to give you my thoughts and advice from a parent’s perspective.

Be the change you want to see. It starts with us.