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Why we need an Autism Hour all year round

From the 6th to the 13th of October over 5,000 retailers took part in ‘autism hour’ in association with the National Autistic Society (NAS). This means that for one hour each day, every day last week, retails made their stores more autism-friendly. Why? Because autism is a sensory condition just as much as it is a communicative one, and people on the spectrum, like me, are often prone to ‘sensory overloads’, when we just can’t handle all the sensory stimulus coming our way.

I tend to only get sensory overloads in big, loud crowds, or when exposed to wacky strobe lighting, but for some people on the spectrum sensory overloads can be a lot more frequent, and triggered by something so simple as walking down an isle at a supermarket. Loud music and bright artificial lighting can make shopping a nightmare for autistic people, particularly when stores are busy and the narrow aisles feel claustrophobic. I may not get overloads in these situations, but I often ‘zone out’, going mute and struggling to focus on the world around me and what it is I’m trying to do, and I for one am going to make full use of these autism-friendly hours this week.

Because here’s the truth: stores are full of sensory stimuli designed to distract you. This isn’t ill-intentioned, it’s just businesses trying to promote their products and boost their sales, but for people like me on the spectrum who struggle to register sensory stimuli, it can make shopping a really stressful task.

To try and make this easier to understand, I want you to picture this: You’re walking through a path in a park. Suddenly, you notice a squirrel. You smile, and move on. But then you notice another. And another. And another. And there are so many squirrels that the green grass disappears, blocking your path out of the park. You’re trapped. You’re overwhelmed. You can’t focus on a way out anymore. All you see is squirrels. Grey squirrels. Red squirrels. Just squirrels, squirrels, squirrels…

Swap out the park for a store, the path for an aisle, and the squirrels for various distractions (music, bright lights, colourful posters and promotions etc), and you’ve got a pretty sound idea of what shopping can be like for someone on the spectrum.

Doesn’t sound like much fun, does it?

That’s why autism hours are so helpful and important in accommodating autistic people across the country. Not only do they allow people on the spectrum to shop stress-free, they also help to raise awareness about autism, and the much less-discussed sensory aspects of the condition, and businesses benefit by attracting customers who their stores who might have otherwise have been put off.

Personally, I think we should have autism hours all-year-round. I mean, why not? I can’t find a downside. Morrisons introduced an autism-friendly ‘quiet hour’ earlier on this year, and I hope other retailers will follow suit, allowing all varieties of people to feel comfortable in their stores.

So why not go an visit a participating retailer this week? You can find the full list on the National Autistic Society website. Even if you’re not on the spectrum, even if you like the music and the lights- just go, and see what it’s all about. Open yourself up to learning more about the sensory aspects of autism, and stand in solidarity with people like me all across the country.