Wednesday, December 11, 2019
News, analysis and commentary by UBC Journalism students


Fluorescent lights, like these at a Vancouver grocery store, can cause intense difficulties for autistic people

Retailers bring quiet time to their stores

More and more establishments are offering sensory-friendly shopping experiences

By Pratyush Dayal , in City , on November 20, 2019

As shoppers push carts through busy aisles and Christmas songs fill stores, many forget that over-stimulation can be an impediment for shoppers with autism.

But establishments like Safeway and Save-on-Foods have introduced measures to alleviate this discomfort.

Store representatives say they did it on the recommendations from colleagues with autism spectrum disorder.

“We started sensory-friendly hours at our branch since we had employees with family members having autism,” said Jason Moloci, the store manager at Kerrisdale branch of Save-On-Foods.

Olivia Douglas, who is autistic and runs a consulting company that deals with the issue, said that retailers need to understand the sensory needs of people with autism and should strive to create sensory-aware spaces and support services that are inclusive.

“Autistic people may have a variety of toleration to sensitivities, regarding touch. eyestrain, or to auditory processing,” said Douglas. “I think we need to do the best we can to achieve all of that in one simple, swift move to make sure that we are accommodating people with disabilities in our communities.”

The stores offering accommodation may be leading the way for many others. The province of British Columbia is currently looking at creating accessibility legislation.

 The stores that have introduced sensory-friendly shopping easier are using a number of strategies to make life easier for people with autism spectrum disorder or ASD as it is known in shorthand.

A sign at the Burquitlam Safeway makes it clear for customers about sensory-friendly hours

“We create a sensory environment by lowering the lights by about 50 per cent,” said Florence Chapman of external communications at Sobeys Inc. “We also make sure to reduce any sounds that come from things like scanners, turn off the music and the PA system, and make sure that we’re not using loud department machines like bread and deli slicers.” 

Even the bathrooms are getting  special treatment.

“One store suggested that we use paper towels instead of hand dryers as they are really loud and can be a trigger,” she said.

Save-On-Foods has also introduced sensory-friendly shopping hours in a few of its stores — including the Kerrisdale location — which was first introduced for team members who have family members with ASD.

Though she hasn’t been to any of the grocery stores yet, Tommasina Mele, mother of a son who has autism, said she appreciates their efforts. She said her son has to wear earplugs while shopping to avoid noises in stores. 

“His earplugs protect him against noise and music in the stores. Sounds like simple scratches are really hard on autistic individuals,” she said. “Establishments need to be more inclusive to cater to sensory needs of people with ASD.”

Malls are taking part too. Autism B.C. partnered with Park Royal to bring “Quiet Time With Santa,” which provides families with autistic children a reduced sensory environment to meet Santa. 

The autism community offers input during an accessibility legislation framework presentation at a session in east Vancouver in November. 

However, thousands of establishments have not yet incorporated sensory-friendly features. 

But there may be a sweeping change in the near future.

B.C.’s provincial government is currently working on its accessibility legislation and is conducting public consultations to formulate accessibility standards. 

But Vivian Ly, executive director at Autistics United Canada, doesn’t think Canada has even come close to achieving positive levels of accessibility for people with autism. 

If B.C. can be a leader in creating a legislation that has strong implementation with accessible ways for disabled people to seek justice when they encounter access barriers, autistic people and otherwise disabled people would be able to create change in their own communities,” said Ly. 

But Ly still thinks that there’s a long way to go.

We need to create sensory friendly environments—and not just one hour of shopping each week—and to take steps for long-term accessibility through universal design.