Supermarket chain Morrisons has introduced a weekly “quieter hour” for autistic shoppers who struggle with music and noise.
Its 439 UK stores will dim lights, turn music off, avoid using the tannoy and turn check-out beeps down on Saturdays from 09:00 to 10:00.
It is believed to be the first supermarket chain to roll out the scheme to all stores nationwide.
The National Autistic Society says it is a “step in the right direction”.
The charity is encouraging retailers to take part in a nationwide “autism hour” in October.
Toy shop The Entertainer holds “quiet hours” during the first hour of opening every Saturday, when staff turn off in-store music in the company’s 145 UK stores to “create a more welcoming environment for children with autism”.
Asda said a number of its supermarkets across the country worked with local groups to run quiet hours on a regular basis. It added it was working with specialist charity groups to ensure its stores were inclusive for all. One of its stores in Manchester first introduced the scheme in 2016.
Tesco said it was not planning on rolling out the initiative nationwide, but store managers were welcome to introduce it if they felt it appropriate – as one store in Alloa, Clackmannanshire, did last year.
And Sainsbury’s said more than 600 of its stores took part in the National Autistic Society’s Autism Hour in October last year and will be doing so again this year.
In three of its Liverpool-based stores, where staff have received training, parents can request a number of store modifications when they begin their shopping trip, it added. Also, a relaxed shopping lane in its Prestwick store has been trialled and will now become a permanent fixture there.
The Morrisons scheme was introduced following a trial earlier this year in its Lincoln, Woking and Gainsborough stores. Angela Gray, Morrisons community champion at Woking, who has an autistic child herself said she’d found the changes made a “real difference”.
Stores will put signs up during the hour to let other customers know about the scheme and to highlight that it is meant to be a calm environment for shoppers.
The movement of trolleys and baskets will also be reduced, it says.
Charlotte King, whose three-year-old son Darcy is undergoing diagnosis for autism, said the initiative was “amazing”, making it “far less stressful” for adults with autism and parents of children with the condition.
“I personally avoid taking him anywhere in shopping malls,” said the mum-of-two, from Hartley-Wintney in Hampshire.
“It is the noise, the lights, it is tannoys. It is too much for him to take in. It looks like you are a bad parent with a naughty child.
“Parents will be more relaxed knowing there will be people there that understand and won’t judge them, this will help reduce anxiety levels for everyone.”
Jody Worrell, who has two teenagers with autism, called the scheme a “great start” but said there was more to the condition than just dealing with the sensory aspect.
The mum-of-three, from Sittingbourne in Kent, said: “My son is 16, he finds it incredibly difficult to go in to a shop. He said today it is too noisy and busy.
“His issue is having to pay – he finds it very difficult to interact with people.”
She said it would be helpful if staff had training to educate them about the condition and they could then wear a badge saying “autism friendly”.
That would “almost take the anxiety away”, she said. “From my point of view that would be the next big step.”
Julie Titmuss, 61, from Colchester, Essex, was diagnosed with autism only two years ago after what she called a “lifelong struggle” to find out why she found certain situations difficult.
“I don’t go to the big supermarkets. I can’t even begin to tell you how deafeningly dreadful it is,” she said.
“The trolleys all clashing, the sound of the tills, the volume of noise in there – you can’t think straight.”
She said the Morrisons scheme was commendable, but that an hour was not enough and that other retailers also needed to consider it.
Leeds mum Tabitha Campbell Beattie, whose son Toby is on the autism spectrum, agrees that an hour is insufficient and that staff members should have training.
“If a supermarket has a quieter hour, that doesn’t stop the supermarket being busy with long queues which can be an added stress,” she said, saying she would like to see “a time zone where disabled children, young adults and so on – not just with autism but other disabilities – should be allowed to shop without the normal public in the shops”.
The National Autistic Society says there are 700,000 people on the autism spectrum in the UK, who “see, hear and feel the world differently to other people, often in a more intense way”.
What is autism?
- A lifelong developmental disability that affects how a person communicates with and relates to other people, and how they experience the world around them
- About 700,000 people in the UK (more than one in 100) are on the autism spectrum
- Autism does not just affect children. Autistic children grow up to be autistic adults
- People may be under-sensitive or over-sensitive to sounds; find social situations a challenge; experience a “meltdown” if overwhelmed
Source: The National Autistic Society