British Columbia

Langley Safeway dims lights, sound to assist customers with autism

The Willowbrook Safeway dimmed lights, kept things quiet, and stopped collecting buggies for an hour to give customers with autism who experience sensory overload a chance to shop more comfortably.

'It's a very calming experience in the store right now,' says deli manager

WIllowbrook Safeway store manager Albert Mutis was anxious about the first attempt at offering a sensory-friendly shopping experience, but he was happy with the results. (Rafferty Baker/CBC)

For some people with autism, lights, smells and sounds can overload the senses and become overwhelming. Even going to a grocery store can be an uncomfortable experience.

So on Friday, a Langley Safeway made an effort to turn it all down a notch for an hour, with the aim of offering a sensory-friendly shopping experience.

Between four and five p.m., the Willowbrook Safeway had half its lights turned off, no music, and even the familiar beeps at the cash register were turned down lower than usual.

Store manager Albert Mutis said staff were told to hold off on collecting shopping carts, and rather than using the intercom, there was an assigned runner to pass messages around the store.

"It's funny ,because everybody that's coming in here — it's quiet — they automatically lower their voices," said Mutis.

"Turning the lights down in a store of this size isn't simply flicking a switch ... I had to go through a little bit training on how to turn these lights off in the middle of the day."

The idea took root after deli manager Ashley Baresinkoff, who has a four-year-old son with autism, read a CBC News story about a Nova Scotia grocery store that had done something similar.

Baresinkoff quickly got support from store management.

"It's a very calming experience in the store right now," she said. "There are a lot of children in our communities that are affected with autism."

Baresinkoff said shopping with her son can be difficult.

"He gets overwhelmed by the lights, the noises, the smells and just everything in general ... he's screaming, and he's covering his ears, and it's just — in general, it's not a very fun shopping experience for me," she said.

Willowbrook Safeway deli manager Ashley Baresinkoff brought the idea of sensory-friendly shopping to her store, after reading about a similar idea in Nova Scotia. (Rafferty Baker/CBC)

Customers in the store — even those unfamiliar with the challenges autism can bring — seemed happy with the changes to the Safeway on Friday.

"It's a lot more romantic, or soothing," said customer John Newton. "I thought maybe it was a power cut ... it is a lot more relaxing."

Michelle Flynn was brought to tears when she realized what was going on in the store. She has two nephews with autism.

"I just think the awareness is a wonderful thing," said Flynn. "I'm really appreciative that Safeway's doing this."

Mutis said he's in a Facebook group with other store managers, and he plans to update them after the first try at sensory-friendly shopping on Friday.

"Most of our managers are aware of this already. So I think it'll be something that would catch on," he said.

The Willowbrook store will continue dimming the lights and reducing sounds in the coming weeks, including April 12, 19, May 3, 17 and 31 from 4-5 p.m.


Is there more to this story? Email rafferty.baker@cbc.ca

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About the Author

Rafferty Baker is a video journalist with CBC News, based in Vancouver, filing stories for cbc.ca, CBC Radio, and television.

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