Autism Hour: On the clock

Autism Hour had returned ( 5 – 12 October) in a bid to improve the shopping experiences of autistic customers. But, why should more high street brands get involved, and how can businesses make their stores more accessible all year round?

Launched in 2017 by the National Autistic Society, Autism Hour has been celebrated every year since, to raise awareness of the barriers that autistic shoppers face in stores across the UK every day.

According to the National Autistic Society, 700,000 people in the UK are autistic, and along with their families, they make up three million shoppers. But, for many, high street shops and independent stores don’t take their needs into account, making a trip into town difficult, or even impossible.

In 2018, more than 11,000 businesses took part in Autism Hour. This year, it’s hoped even more brands will get involved and make their stores accessible for all shoppers.

Similarly, the impact the event will have on consumers is sure to be a strong push for organisations to change their ways for more than just one hour out of the year.

“I default to shopping online because it’s easier and a lot less hassle,” explains Connor Ward, who is autistic.

“But, of course, I do want to go and shop and look at clothes in person and it can be extremely difficult at times, especially clothes shopping. You go into some shops and it’s like going to a club or a disco in the middle of the day with rave music.”

Connor, credit to Owen Kelly

WHAT IS AUTISM HOUR?

The campaign aims to make businesses aware of the experiences autistic shoppers may have in their stores, it hopes raised awareness will see organisations improve their services to take autistic consumers’ needs into account.

During the week, high street brands and independent stores adjust their premises, turning down music and limiting other background noise, dimming the lights, reducing tannoy announcements, introducing a quiet area in-store and limiting strong smells.

Staff members are also given additional training to improve their understanding of autism and how they can further assist autistic customers. In the past, Sainsbury’s, Superdrug, Co-op, Marks and Spencer, Toys ‘R’ Us and the entire Trafford Centre in Manchester have taken part.

Autism Hour highlights the simple changes that can be easily made, and can have a positive effect for autistic shoppers. In fact, the changes are so easy to implement, that many businesses taking part in the campaign choose to make permanent weekly changes, making their stores a more welcoming environment all year round.

CHANGES

Brands including Morrisons, The Entertainer, Home Bargains and Asda have introduced permanent autism hours, or quiet hours, to make shopping in-store a more pleasant experience for autistic people and their families.

“Back in 2016, we were the first retailer to trial a ‘quiet hour’ which was set up by one of our store managers in Manchester,” says Clair Hufton, consumer media relations manager at Asda.

“This was aimed at autistic customers and during this trial we learned that we needed to support a wider audience and restarted a new inclusive hour trial.

“Our aim is to be a truly inclusive retailer and support customers with a variety of physical and hidden disabilities.”

Asda’s Inclusive Hour considers the needs of not only autistic shoppers, but customers with other hidden disabilities, including dementia and Alzheimer’s. As a result, in 2018 Asda’s Sittingbourne store was named the Best Dementia Friendly Company, at the Dementia Friendly Kent Awards.

“The response has been overwhelmingly positive,” Clair enthuses. “We always want to put our customers’ needs first and make their shopping experiences better and hassle-free. We play an important part in local communities and want customers to feel comfortable in our stores.”

Asda hopes that by hosting their own inclusive hour, other retailers will see just how easy it is to get involved with the campaign.

“It’s all about understanding and education,” explains Clair. “We’re not experts in any of this: we’re listening to the feedback from our customers and working with relevant community groups to provide a better shopping experience.

“We want to make sure our colleagues are being friendly and helpful: the knowledge our colleagues have gained through launching Inclusive Hour has already broken down some of the barriers.”

IMPROVEMENTS

Campaigns such as Autism Hour not only ask businesses to make their stores more autism-friendly, but raise awareness in the wider community, and encourage non-disabled customers to consider their own behaviour when they shop.

“Autism Hour just takes away the general anxiety of shopping,” Connor enthuses. “I still have to get on with everyday tasks, such as going to the supermarket and I’m just constantly tense when I’m in there.

“The whole idea of me being in a shop is to go in, get my stuff and get out. However, when it’s a quiet hour, you can take your time, you don’t feel any pressure because you’re in a relaxed environment and it makes all the difference.”

With many brands adopting a weekly inclusive hour, the campaign has made the high street more accessible to autistic customers. And, as more shops open their doors to Autism Hour, Connor hopes the campaign will extend into other premises, including restaurants, gyms and more.

“I can’t understand why more places don’t do it,” Connor says. “Any contribution is better than no contribution: if you just turn the lights and music down, that has made a massive difference already. It’s the little steps that make a big difference.”

Autism Hour 2019 information and stores taking part are available from the National Autistic Society.

Are you following Enable on Twitter and Instagram? Make sure you do for all the latest updates.