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Autism inclusion in retail: small changes, big difference

Posted on: 20 Apr 2022

In 2015, Scally’s SuperValu in Clonakilty introduced Autism Friendly shopping hours. To mark World Autism Month, Retail News examines how this small change sparked a nationwide movement for inclusion and asks autism charity AsIAm how retailers can best support their autistic customers and employees. Words: Morgan Stokes.


WHEN UCD student Patricia O’Leary walked into Scally’s SuperValu in Clonakilty, Co. Cork, in early 2015, neither she nor store owner Eugene Scally knew that their conversation would spark one of the most revolutionary movements for inclusion in Irish retail history.


O’Leary was doing a course in Autism Studies and learning what the world looked like from the perspective of an autistic person. An autistic brain processes information from the senses in a different way to that of a non-autistic (often referred to as ‘allistic’) person. Though sensory processing varies hugely among individuals, this often means that sights, sounds, temperatures, and smells can be far more intense to autistic people, often to the point of overwhelming them. Spending time in a supermarket, surrounded by music, tannoy sounds, bright lights and sudden temperature changes, can be extremely stressful.

“She approached my parents and she said, ‘look I have this idea; it’s to do with autism-friendly shopping,” recalls Eoghan Scally. “It wasn’t done anywhere else before.”


Scally’s SuperValu became the first retailer in Ireland to implement autism-friendly shopping hours, turning lights and till sounds down and music off for a couple of hours once a week. The small change was set to snowball; over the past seven years, the interest it gained has resulted in an award-winning partnership for SuperValu with national autism charity AsIAm, a group-wide roll out of autism friendly shopping hours, the designation of Clonakilty as Ireland’s first autismfriendly town, and interest from retailers around the globe.


AsIAm and the importance of understanding

While many SuperValu stores quickly followed Scally’s example, the initiative really took off with the development of the retail group’s partnership with AsIAm in 2018. As a charity staffed and led by autistic adults, AsIAm were perfectly positioned to advise on both sensory issues and potential gaps in understanding.


“One of the key barriers that exist for the autistic community to being able to participate meaningfully in their local community is the judgement and attitude of others,” says Fiona Ferris, Deputy CEO of AsIAm, and one of the main overseers of the partnership. The general public image of autism, she says, is “totally “One of the key barriers that exist for the autistic community to being able to participate meaningfully in their local community is the judgement and attitude of others,” says Fiona Ferris, Deputy CEO of AsIAm, and one of the main overseers of the partnership. The general public image of autism, she says, is “totally inaccurate and not representative”.

“When we are talking about autism, we’re never doing it from an outside perspective… it’s about saying, well actually, this is how autistic people experience the world,” Fiona explains. Getting information direct from autistic people themselves can help break stereotypes and humanise the experience.


The charity developed a series of e-learnings for SuperValu staff, covering communication barriers and the reasons behind certain behaviours, in addition to sensory issues. Eoghan Scally recalls being surprised at how little he really knew.

“Prior to the business going on this journey, the vast majority of people would have heard of autism but there was a huge lack of understanding. When there’s a lack of understanding, there’s a lack of acceptance,” he reflects. Eoghan particularly remembers being introduced to the word ‘stimming’, a term used by the community to describe physical movements, such as fidgeting, which allow an autistic person to better regulate their emotions or focus on a task. Allistic people unaware of the term (or of a person’s diagnosis) may view an autistic person who is stimming as suspicious or strange, when they may just be trying to concentrate.


SuperValu, in turn, have sponsored a suite of AsIAm’s supports for autistic individuals and their families, including webinars, post-Covid back-to-school supports, and broader autism-friendly community initiatives.


Small steps, big benefits

For Eoghan, the most surprising thing about the whole process was how easy the initial changes were to make. “These are really simple steps to take but they are of great benefit to people,” he stresses. “That was probably the biggest learning; how things that seem so insignificant to you can have such an impact on somebody.” Turning the lights down and the music off is a relatively low effort task for store owners, for example, but can remove a huge source of stress for an autistic individual.

Allistic customers and employees may not notice these changes, and feedback from the project suggests that many even found them beneficial. “Elderly shoppers benefited from having a calmer atmosphere, employees benefited from the peacefulness of it all,” notes Eoghan.


Fiona points out that the measures can be a boon for people with other disabilities or illnesses like dementia, and that a more sensory-friendly environment can make all customers more comfortable. “There was so much positive feedback from members of the community who had no connection to autism,” she notes. “Autism-friendly measures are people-friendly. ‘I love the music during my shopping experience,’ said nobody ever,” she laughs. “Everybody has a sensory limit; for autistic people that might be a little lower, but that’s not to say that removing some of the sensory input during the shopping experience won’t make this a more pleasant experience for everybody.”


Accomodation at any time

Autism-friendly hours may have made the autistic shopping experience far easier, but Fiona is keen to stress that a window of a few hours a week is not enough: “The autistic community should be able to shop accessibly all of the time. How can we look at the environment? How can we look at our staff and make sure that there’s a level of understanding in-store that will enable autistic people and their families to make shopping less of an overstimulating experience all of the time?”


Fortunately, Musgrave and SuperValu were very enthusiastic about increasing accessibility overall. In partnership with AsIAm, the retail group developed sensory maps of the stores which identified areas that might be particularly bright, busy or cold, allowing autistic customers or caregivers to prepare themselves for their visit. An unpredictable sensory environment can be stressful; it’s hard to relax when you’re aware that an unexpected crash, alarm or flickering light could remove your ability to cook dinner that evening or cause your child to melt-down in the middle of the store. However, while that may be enough to make the environment accessible for some autistic people, everyone is different; some may still need to access the sensory-friendly hours.


Accessibility and employees

Fiona is keen to stress that autism friendly retail needs to focus not just on autistic customers, but on autistic employees as well. While store environments can be overwhelming for some autistic people, others can and do work in the grocery sector, and store owners and suppliers may not actually realise that some of their workers are on the spectrum.

“When we started to engage in this autism acceptance and understanding education with SuperValu, there was an increased number of people disclosing, as a staff member, saying, ‘well actually, I’m autistic’,” she says. Autistic employees may have a good performance overall but find aspects of their job confusing or distressing and might avoid asking for accommodations or clarifications for fear of judgement. A more understanding attitude among employers can lead to higher overall productivity.


Fiona also wants employers to ask themselves if the right person for the job might not make it into their organisation at all. “We’re still in a situation in Ireland where roughly 85% of autistic individuals are long-term unemployed, or underemployed,” she reveals, insisting that this “is not due to a lack of wanting to work, or not being able to work. We’re seeing very highly qualified autistic people not being able to work in their chosen fields because they can’t get through an interview process.”


Interviews are often vague, unpredictable and anxiety-inducing, with emphasis put on elements of non-verbal communication that autistic candidates might struggle with. Ferris suggests making an interview as relaxed as possible, with direct questions asked in plain language and a task-based portion included; for example, asking the candidate to demonstrate their performance at a till.


Getting involved

Eoghan notes that as soon as interest was piqued and understanding gained, the entire local community wanted to get involved. “The momentum grew behind it… people became interested,” he remembers. Interest and empathy were strong enough among local businesses and individuals that Clonakilty became Ireland’s first autism-friendly town in 2018.


Fiona says that this is typical of AsIAm’s experience in community education. “We’ve never come across a business or an organisation that doesn’t want to learn,” she insists. “It’s something I’m quite moved by”. She does, however, emphasise that autistic voices should be central in these discussions: “Nothing about us, without us”.


Further information on AsIAm’s corporate partnerships, training and support programmes can be found online at asiam.ie.