On being … calmer

By Ingrid Sapona

A major Canadian grocery store chain (Sobeys) recently announced it’s introducing “sensory-friendly” shopping hours. The first I heard of this was in a newscast that I had tuned into half way through. So, the only detail I caught was that store lighting would be reduced. When I heard that, I assumed the rationale was energy-saving, which I’m all for.

It turns out, however, there’s a lot more to the initiative than just reduced lighting. The program is designed to accommodate people with autism. According to Autism Ontario, many with autism are hypersensitive to lights and sounds. I had heard about those challenges, but I never really thought about how that might impact something as common as grocery shopping.

News stories about Sobeys’ announcement explained what this means to folks touched by autism – parents with children on the autism spectrum and adults with it. One woman with a daughter with sensory challenges welcomed the news, noting that grocery shopping is the task she dreads most, given her daughter’s issues. Another customer who shopped in one of the stores in Sobeys’ pilot said she was never able to take her daughter shopping. She was thrilled that her daughter could – for the first time ever – pick out her own treat at the grocery store. Ah, the things we take for granted …

The comments by adults with autism were just as moving. One woman explained that she and her partner usually shop together so that if there’s something they need in an aisle that’s “potentially overstimulating”, her partner can go and get it. An example of an aisle she usually finds challenging is one with lots of different smells, like those that emanate from laundry detergent and cleaning supplies. I have some idea of what she meant, since most of the chemical “fresh” scents give me a headache. So, I generally avoid those aisles too, unless I need something. But, while there might be one or two aisles that I skip, that woman said that in a normal grocery store, her partner ends up having to get about 70% of their groceries.

The adjustments Sobeys makes during its sensory-friendly hours are more extensive than I thought would be possible. For example, they dim the lights 50%. They ensure the store is as quiet as possible by not playing any music and not making announcements. They also silence the scanners (all those beeps) and registers. As well, during those hours they don’t gather up shopping carts and they encourage staff to speak more softly.

When they tested the idea in a few stores, they were concerned that with the lights so low, folks might think the store was closed or having a problem. But, when anyone asks about the changes, staff simply explain they’re trying to make the store more inclusive and welcoming to folks with sensory challenges. The feedback they got during the pilot was positive – and not just from folks on the autism spectrum. Some shoppers said they appreciated the quieter experience and others said they liked it because they found it relaxing.

I think the idea is fantastic – and not just because it could help people with autism. Creating quieter, calmer places is a worthy goal in itself. Everywhere we go we’re assaulted with sounds and smells. Only a handful of them are naturally occurring (the sound of birds chirping, dogs barking, food cooking, the smell of fresh cut grass, and so on). On top of that there’s the human-made background noise from traffic and talk and the constant hum of things like refrigerators and air conditioners. As if all that’s not enough of an assault on our senses, there’s “background music” and perfumes and “mountain fresh scents” added – all in hopes of drowning out other noise and masking other smells.

I truly believe most of us are overstimulated. For proof you need look no further than at the phenomenon of noise cancelling headphones or folks turning to people like Marie Kondo, who makes a living promoting techniques for bringing calm and serenity into homes.

I can’t wait to try shopping in a sensory-friendly environment, and I hope others will try it too. I think Sobeys’ efforts will raise awareness in more ways than they anticipated. Indeed, if nothing else, I think the contrast between normal grocery shopping the experience of shopping during these special hours will help folks appreciate just how much stimuli we’re bombarded with every day. I’ll bet this ends up appealing to a far broader spectrum of folks than just those diagnosed with autism and sensory challenges.

What about you? Would you go out of your way to shop in a sensorially calmer store? Do you think such changes would enhance – or detract from – your grocery shopping experience? Are there any other places you’d nominate for a sensory-friendly makeover?

© 2019 Ingrid Sapona


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