Autism shopping strategies – should more shops adopt the quiet hour?

Manchester Asda recently introduced a quiet hour for people with autism during which escalators, in-store music, tannoy announcements and display TVs are turned off. The aim is to make the experience of shopping easier for people who find loud noises difficult. Aimee Jackson, Autism Programme Leader at Henshaws Specialist College in Harrogate explains how we can all build on this brilliant idea and shares her advice on shopping strategies for people with autism.

Imagine you are out shopping but you can’t filter out any of the sensory experiences that go with it.

You can smell the deli counter cheeses, the mix of scents from the perfume aisle and the coffee in the café. The in-store music is blaring out. There are things to eat and drink everywhere you look. The tannoy keeps announcing the latest special offers and people are talking, shouting at their children or brushing against you as they pass. Could you focus on what you are there to buy, finding your way around whilst not being able to stop all of these smells, sights, sounds and feelings overloading your senses? This is just a glimpse of what it can be like for someone with autism in the supermarket.

More than the quiet hour

I think the quiet hour is a genius idea. It not only helps people with autism spectrum conditions, but also a wide range of other disabilities by reducing the potential for sensory overload.

But I also believe people with autism shouldn’t be restricted to shopping just in one store at a certain time of day. We need to find ways to overcome any barriers to shopping in a quiet and constructive way so that individuals can build shopping strategies which work for them.

By planning and preparing and being thoughtful, you can make the shopping experience easier for someone with autism. Here are my top tips:

Cashier hands over receipt to student shopping in asda

Before you shop

  • Identify possible triggers for the person you are supporting. Be really aware of the parts of the trip which they might find challenging and plan ways to remove or reduce exposure to these.
  • Plan which items you are going to shop for and where. Having a photo of the product can be a much more concrete way of explaining what you need to buy.
  • Talk through or use symbols/pictures to explain each part of the process, from getting ready to leave to walking through the shop door and which aisles you need to visit.
  • Choose a quieter time of day to make your trip. This can help to reduce some of the triggers like overcrowding or noise.
  • Some people might prefer to walk to the local shop rather than driving to the supermarket. The walk gives a chance to use excess energy and talk through the next steps.

During the shopping trip

  • Find a supportive place to practice. We will often make trips to the Arts & Crafts Centre in Knaresborough when students are learning to shop. It’s still a real environment and students go through the same process of buying something but the staff are trained in supporting people with disabilities and environment is less overwhelming.
  • Be patient. The person you are supporting may take a little longer to process instructions or to express their feelings when in this environment.
  • Use self service checkouts. They are more predictable and go through a set routine which may help people to understand the process. It also reduces the need to answer any questions face to face whilst shopping is still a new experience.
  • Practice every day. Start by encouraging decision making and choosing between two options. Build up gradually the length of the list you are shopping for or the range of different shops you can visit.

How shopping strategies have helped our students

Using these techniques, we have seen huge progress in the young people with autism spectrum conditions who we support at Henshaws. Their ability to participate in everyday activities off campus is growing all the time.

One of our students can now catch the bus into town every week to go shopping with support. He has learnt to make choices between different drinks and loves to order his favourite, a cappuccino, using a symbol request card to support his communication to the barista. On a recent trip to River Island he pointed to a blue shirt and said ‘Like that’. This is a huge achievement for him and it’s wonderful to see him articulating what he likes and doesn’t like.

Through working on his vocabulary and gradually building his confidence in making his own decisions about what to wear or what to drink, he can now lead a more independent adult life.

Student enjoying a cappuccino in a local coffee shop

Further support

The National Autistic Society have a really useful section on their website which covers strategies to help reduce some of the difficulties when shopping.

NAS website – Shopping: strategies to help

For more information about our learning programmes for young people with autism spectrum conditions and a wide range of disabilities you can visit our college website.

Henshaws Specialist College website

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