Day 6

How a U.K. grocery store is making shopping more tolerable for people with autism

British grocery chain store Morrisons has introduced "Quieter Hours," which includes dimming store lights and turning off background music in an effort to make shopping more comfortable for people on the spectrum.

'I often want to get in and out as fast as I can,' Billie Jade Fox says of a typical grocery run

People walk past a Morrisons supermarket in south London in 2016. The grocery chain has introduced 'Quieter Hours,' which includes dimming store lights and turning off background music in an effort to make shopping more comfortable for people on the spectrum. (Peter Nicholls/Reuters)

For many people, shopping at the grocery store is a relatively benign, even boring affair.

But to Billie-Jade Fox, who has autism, it can be an overwhelming experience.

"When I walk through the doors of a grocery store, I'm hit by all the sounds and smells and lights and it can sometimes feel like the shop's closing in around you, like the walls are closing in," Fox, who lives in Buxton, Derbyshire, told Day 6.

"I often want to get in and out as fast as I can."

She was excited, then, when the U.K. grocery chain Morrisons recently announced that they would be introducing weekly quiet hours to help shoppers with autism feel more comfortable in the store.

Every Saturday from 9 a.m. to 10 a.m., stores will dim the lights, turn off music and announcements and turn down checkout beeps and other electronic noises.

'A huge difference'

Fox calls the quiet hour "a brilliant idea" and says she will be looking forward to shopping there on Saturday mornings.

"It will just make a huge difference to be able to enter a shop and for it to be a quieter and calmer environment."

Billie-Jay Fox is a U.K.-based blogger who writes about her experiences living with autism. (Submitted by Billie-Jay Fox)
She also lauded the grocery chain's plan to educate staff on how to interact with customers with autism.

Fox takes several steps to prepare herself before going to the grocery store in order to avoid a potential panic attack.

She often saves a photo of the product she needs onto her phone so she knows exactly what she's looking for, and asks her parents which aisle she needs to go to find it.

"I've been confused before. For example, I've been looking for tinned pineapple and look in the fruits section, when it's actually in the tins section," she said.

It will just make a huge difference to be able to enter a shop and for it to be a quieter and calmer environment.- Billie-Jade Fox

The initiative is in collaboration with the U.K.'s National Autistic Society.

"Around 700,000 people are on the autism spectrum in the U.K. This means they see, hear and feel the world differently to other people, often in a more intense way," the society's Daniel Cadey said as a part of the announcement.

During the Saturday morning quiet hour, store employees will reduce the movement of shopping carts and baskets, as well as turning down the beeps and other noises from checkout lane devices. (Peter Nicholls/Reuters)

Fox hopes other grocery stores and other businesses will follow suit.

"If all businesses could dedicate an hour a week to a time where autistic people can do their shopping in a quieter, dimmer environment, it would make all the difference," she wrote on her blog Girl on the Spectrum.

Sensory-friendly events in Canada

According to a March report by the Public Health Agency of Canada, 1 in 66 children and youth in Canada are diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Boys are diagnosed with ASD roughly four times more frequently than girls.

Some similar programs have been introduced in Canada as well. Autism Speaks Canada partnered with Cineplex to provide regular sensory-friendly movie screening for families. Toys R Us has also held a handful of sensory-friendly shopping hours and plan to hold more in the future.

They've also partnered with Cadillac Fairview malls for sensory-friendly Santa Claus visits.

Morrisons is one of the largest grocery store chains in the U.K., with about 500 locations around the country. (Justin Tallis/AFP/Getty Images)

"I do think that the pace has increased a tremendous amount in terms of companies getting on board. We only see that it will continue to do so," said Autism Speaks Canada's marketing director Carrie Habert.

In the case of Morrisons, she noted a particular importance for businesses that are an everyday part of people's lives to think about accommodating people with autism or other disabilities.

"Any time that companies step forward and show that they are in support of diversity, and that they're willing to make modifications to be more inclusive is a good thing," she said, citing other cases such as wheelchair-friendly premises or resources for the blind.

Canada lags behind U.K., says autism advocate

Dermot Cleary, chair of Autism Canada, called the quiet hour "a win-win scenario" for the U.K. chain.

"It's smart of Morrisons to make a change that isn't particularly costly at all, and yet makes a tremendous difference," he said. "The goodwill in making such an accommodation is tremendous. It's inestimable."

To say we're behind [in Canada] is an understatement.- Dermot Cleary

But he was also critical that the number of similar initiatives in Canada and the U.S. have comparatively lagged behind the U.K. 

"To say we're behind is an understatement," he said. "I would like to see Loblaws step up and do the same. Match it."

Written by Jonathan Ore. This segment was produced by Laurie Allan.


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