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How an Arnprior grocery store is making shopping easier for people with autism

From 8 a.m. to 10 a.m. on Mondays, a grocery store in Arnprior dimmed the lights, turned off the intercom and asked staff not to wear scents — all to create a "sensory-friendly shopping experience" for people with special needs.

No Frills franchise owner pleased with 'overwhelming' positive feedback

Mark Harrison, who owns the No Frills grocery store in Arnprior, has two children on the autism spectrum and knows that some people struggle with bright lights, loud noise and strong scents. (Jessa Runciman/CBC)

From 8 a.m. to 10 a.m. on Mondays, a grocery store in Arnprior, Ont., dims the lights, turns off the intercom and asks staff not to wear scents — all to create a "sensory-friendly shopping experience" for people with special needs.

No Frills franchise owner Mark Harrison has two children on the autism spectrum and knows first-hand some people struggle with sensitivities to bright light, noise and other things.

"It can be very disorienting for them. It can make the experience of basic shopping just horrible. So if we can offer a bit of a calmer experience with less lights and less noise, then it's a win for everybody," Harrison said.

"There's been an overwhelming amount of feedback, which has been great … To take care of the people in town is a huge thing, and to get other people involved to take care of their communities is even better."

Harrison said the first go-around on Feb. 4 was such a success, the store will experiment with offering the same thing on Tuesdays from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m.

He said other No Frills stores in the area have shown interest in doing something similar.

Refrigerated aisles like these are normally quite bright, with lights illuminating the products on each row, but they're being turned off at the No Frills in Arnprior, Ont., at certain times on Mondays and Tuesdays. (Jessa Runciman/CBC)

Harrison got the idea from employee Carol Greer, who read about something similar being offered at a different store in Truro, N.S., and forwarded it to her boss.

"I just thought it was a good way to be able to bring it out into our community and [raise] awareness of it," Greer said.

"People have been saying that they really appreciate the calmer environment."

Carol Greer came across a social media post about a store in Nova Scotia offering a similar service for people with sensory sensitivities and forwarded it to her boss. (Jessa Runciman/CBC)

One such customer is Amanda Rietschlin.

"My son actually has autism, so I think it's very cool because I know it can be overwhelming … I'm really happy to see that they're being really inclusive and really thinking of everyone who's out there," she said.

Customer Amanda Rietschlin has a son with autism, and said she's excited for families with young children to take advantage of the program. (Jessa Runciman/CBC)

Her son is a teen now, but she's excited for families with younger children to take advantage.

"It would have made a big difference for our family, because we could all go out, he could come out and see all the different fruits and he could pick things that he likes," Rietschlin said.

"For a family with small children, I think it would be really great."

No bright lights, no loud announcements, it's grocery shopping that's easy on the senses. We visit the Arnprior No Frills, where they've introduced new measures to help those with special sensitivities. 7:04

'People like [my son] matter'

Another happy customer is Marc Bissonnette, who is deaf in one ear and experiences static sounds in loud environments.

He has a son with a syndrome that causes sensory overload issues. 

Customer Marc Bissonnette is deaf in one ear, and has a son with a syndrome that causes sensory overload issues. He said he was 'touched' by the store's new policy. (Jessa Runciman/CBC)

"To hear that a store would actually do something for people like my son, I can honestly say I've never heard of that, ever. So when Mark made this announcement, I'm like … people like [my son] matter," Bissonnette said.

"The only reason you do something like this is to be a genuinely nice guy, and it just touched my heart."

Arnprior is about 65 kilometres west of downtown Ottawa.

With files from CBC Radio's Ottawa Morning

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