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21 and Atypical: Popping to the shops

In 2018 Sainsbury’s launched a new trial to help enhance the shopping experience for customers with hidden disabilities. The trial enables customers with hidden disabilities to collect a lanyard which indicates to colleagues that extra support is needed. The scheme helps those with hidden disabilities, such as autism, dementia, visual or hearing impairment by alerting staff that extra support may be needed while shopping. Lanyards are available to collect for free and are for each customer to keep so they can wear it every time they come into store! Not all Sainsbury’s stores have implemented the initiative yet. Sainsbury’s is the first supermarket to test the initiative, following Gatwick Airport’s successful launch and, by using the same sunflower lanyards as Gatwick and Heathrow Airport, Sainsbury’s sets an example for other retailers to follow.

In Shopping with Autism I described how, before Christos started school and was able to communicate with us better through PECS, going shopping with him was a nightmare. It was like walking into a living breathing nightmare. It was loud, it was cold, it was too much. His sensory sensitivity was off the roof. He cried, he was on the floors, he was red, his clothes would come off, he was screaming and there was nothing we could do to console him. We would return home traumatised after every trip – and there were a lot of trips. A couple of years later, we could stop the screaming, by getting him chocolate and crisps. Then came the years where we would go in and didn’t need to literally drag him across the floor to the till. My mum stopped apologising to everyone. When he got a bit older, we would make a list, he’d know where everything was and there was no crying, he would organise the shelves. If something in aisle 4 was supposed to be in aisle 12, he knew and he would fix it. Now? It’s one of his favourite errands. You can tell him what you want, he’ll tell you what he wants, you’ll try and offer a compromise, you’ll lose and everyone goes home happy. 9 times out of 10, Christos will jump at the chance to go to the shop; big or small it doesn’t matter! He will pick everything and stand over my mum and shout and order her around until everything is unpacked and stored back home. Now, he has the skills to shop for himself. This growth, this maturity and his development is a testament to my parents’ unwavering will to prepare him for the trial and tribulations of every day life.

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Stephanos is not interested nor does he get involved in the shopping aspect of daily life.  He knows and trusts his family to provide him with food stuffs, he is adaptable in brand names and is happy with to have his small juice, ice cream or chocolate and let everyone else deal with the hassle of a supermarket. He doesn’t go to the shops and will not get involved unless he is asked to by his family. When he is asked, he kindly obliges and goes back to his snacks. Whereas, Christos will make you do it all his way. Stephanos’ shopping routine took roots when he, his dad and brother took him to the supermarket with and got him a juice, a chocolate or an ice cream. This simple action, possible done to distract from a tantrum, triggered a routine which he follows when he does participate in a shopping trip. The brands of juice, chocolate or ice cream are not always the same  but he always picks out the three items mentioned above. But, just like his pal, his early encounters with big markets, the sounds, smells, people, intrusion of private space would trigger him when he was younger. At 12 years old, Stephanos had a huge meltdown in a shop in the UK. His mum remembers it as a huge episode including self-injury and the worst she had had to deal with up until that time. Even though the family don’t usually take him to big markets so as to spare him the angst, when he does join he is much better equipped to deal with a mood, or someone clearing their throat. While he may get a bit upset and start stimming, overall he is happy with his treats. I mean, I order everything online just so I can avoid these places, why should our boys feel any different?

The reason we collate and write about these stories is to give you an insight into autism daily life. It’s not always easy but it’s not always difficult either! These boys have gone from kicking and screaming to young adults who know how to help their parents, how to negotiate and take a step back when it all becomes too overwhelming. Christos and Stephanos’ stories are being told so that next time, when you see a parent desperately trying to get their child off the floor, or a kid making sure all the water bottles are facing the same way you may see a bit more than what’s on the surface. You may see the need to help make this world more autism-friendly and you may remember that milestones are different for all of us. You might remember these stories and realise how this was a millionstone for both of them.

My brother is a controlling shopper and Stephanos would just let him get on with it.  When you see them and spend time with them you always get the impression that the boys have a full understanding of each other and respect each other’s character, boundaries and behaviours.

#21andatypical

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Shopping with Autism

The thought of writing this post makes me smile. It’s that smile you have when you have overcome something and then you look back on it years later and think “How was that my life?”.

In 2015 I spoke to you about Christos’ traits in “Why fit in? a) Gestures“: [He] likes to shake his arms in the air a lot, quite forcibly and he makes this laughing but not laughing sort of sound. When we are in big open spaces he’ll run like the wind. When we were in supermarkets, when we were in Disneyland, generally in places where he feels comfortable. 

Looking back on that now, it’s quite funny to think that I used supermarkets as an example of a place where he feels comfortable.

Up until the age of 8 (?Mum correct me) going shopping with Chris was a nightmare. I’m not exaggerating. It was like walking into a living breathing nightmare. Most of the time mum and dad wouldn’t take him. But when you’re on your own and you have a 10 year old and a 2 year old, and they need milk, or nappies, or food, you gotta pack up and go to the supermarket. It wasn’t something we could avoid.

Just thinking of driving up to the supermarket makes my palms sweat. It was loud, it was cold, it was too much. His sensory sensitivity was off the roof. He cried, he was on the floors, he was red, his clothes would come off, he was screaming and there was nothing we could do to console him. We would return home traumatised.

A couple of years later, we could stop the screaming, by getting him chocolate and crisps. Then came the years where we would go in and didn’t need to drag him across the floor to the till. My mum stopped apologising to everyone. When he got a bit older, we would make a list, he’d know where everything was and there was no crying. He would organise the shelves. If something in Isle 4 was supposed to be in Isle 12, he knew and he would fix it.

Now? Now it’s one of his favourite places. You can tell him what you want, he’ll tell you what he wants, you’ll try and offer a compromise, you’ll lose and everyone goes home happy. No crying or screaming involved. This is a testament to my parents. Not the strangers around us who, instead of helping, stared in disbelief, not being able or willing to understand that my brother was not naughty he was just in incomprehensible pain. My parents made this progress possible. Milestones are different to all of us, and this is a millionstone (trademarked).

When I left home in 2008 he was 10 and in the organising phase. My dad worked nights so in the afternoons it was just Chris and mum running errands, going shopping. I remember her calling to tell me they had been ‘banned’ from a supermarket. Chris was sorting out the chocolate shelf (without pay) like he always did, while mum was picking some other stuff up from a bit further down. Chris found an open chocolate bar and he kicked it under the shelf. [LOLLING] I mean, why was there an open chocolate bar there in the first place?? Who’s fault was that?

Anyway, one of the staff found my mum, told her he was disturbing or stealing or that he was part of the chocolate mafia; I don’t know what. So, they asked them to leave. Now, those of you who know my mum can imagine. Those of you who don’t, let me just tell you that she’s not like me. She’s shy, polite, kind and was shocked. In her state, she was unable to express herself and instead just stopped going to that supermarket.

My rationale was to call the supermarket, from the UK. I was quickly convinced not to. Instead, I told everyone who would listen that this had happened in that one supermarket in my home town. My sister (who broke the World Guinness record for the 4th time, as mentioned in previous post #justsaying) was outraged. I remember us driving past the supermarket and always remembering, bringing it up.

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I was so resentful of that brand, that when I moved to Brussels and it was the neighbourhood supermarket, I hated myself for sometimes forgetting to make a list and going somewhere else and instead having to buy milk from there. That’s right, I can hold a grudge. The original supermarket recently closed down, and I would be lying if I didn’t feel a tinge of happiness that that place, where my mum was made to feel inadequate and my brother was singled out for being himself, was no longer there.

In recent years, many big supermarket brands have introduced measures to help their autistic buyers. For example, The Asda “Quiet Hour”, earlier this year Tesco trialled a ‘quiet hour, Marks & Spencer has launched a uniform range to help children with Autism etc. This year the National Autistic Society (NAS) has launched the “Autism Hour” to help draw attention to the difficulties that people with autism can face in noisy environments.  If you want a glimpse into what its like, watch this video.

In the first week of October, businesses will turn down music, reduce announcements and dim lights to help create a calming and less daunting environment. A number of major retailers have already signed up to the initiative, including Clarks and Toys R Us and we hope to see many, many more name brands on the list.

I hope this is a success. I can’t help the voice in my head screaming that this is making autism the exception instead of teaching acceptance. However, the other voice in my head (i know how this sounds) is reminding me that all the people involved in this initiative will go home and talk about it with their family, their kids, their friends. I am reminded that this is awareness at it’s best because it helps you understand and take away only the best. I hope that this paves the road to us shopping together, with more understanding than judgement, more humanity than dread and with more knowledge than ignorance.