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    Retailers need to ‘up their game’ to cater to autistic shoppers

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    Bright lights, loud noises and changing temperatures are among the issues making trips to the stores difficult for autistic people, researchers have said, launching a guide on how to make stores more autism-friendly.

    Researchers from the University of Reading have stated that stores are losing about £13.5 million in weekly revenue, which is more than £700 million a year due to autistic people avoiding them. A new guide is being launched by the Centre for Autism at the university to help retailers make their spaces more inclusive to people with autism, who can often feel overstimulated by the environment. 

    The research included a series of focus groups and created a full-size model of a supermarket to trial different approaches to reducing sensory overload.

    Tara Cooke, who contributed to the guide, said, “Going out shopping is a regular part of most people’s lives, but as an autistic person I sometimes find the experience to be difficult or impossible. I can find supermarkets loud, confusing and frustrating, and I often rush through just to get the essentials before leaving or put off going altogether.”

    The University of Reading has launched a guide offering six principles to make shopping more autism-friendly, such as reducing background music and providing designated quiet areas.

    Lecturer in psychology Dr Cathy Manning, who is leading the project, said retailers “really need to up their game”.

    Manning said, “Supermarkets and other retailers really need to up their game to better meet the needs of autistic and neurodivergent people. Having ‘quiet hours’ is a good first step but does not go nearly far enough to support autistic people in their stores.”

    “Switching to online shopping is not the answer either, as this brings its own challenges for autistic people, who may struggle with new people arriving at their front door, items being substituted or items not coming at all.

    “This new guide, which has been co-designed with autistic people based on years of participatory research, demonstrates how small changes in a range of areas could improve the experiences of autistic shoppers and employees in supermarkets.

    “We know from our autistic contributors how desperately needed this guide is,” she said.

    The guide highlights six principles from the research that supermarkets should apply to create calmer and more predictable environments for autistic shoppers and employees:

    1. Reducing sensory input – for example by removing background music, and avoiding strong-smelling cleaning products
    2. Improving understanding – for example, by providing training for all staff in autism and sensory processing differences, and training specialist ‘autism champions’ to support autistic people
    3. Increasing predictability – for example, by providing a store map with the location of different sensory features (like chillers, fresh fruit and vegetables) and providing clear signage.
    4. Giving more space – for example, managing areas that are getting crowded in the store and introducing priority checkouts.
    5. Using suitable adjustments – for example, by ensuring staff are trained on existing initiatives (e.g., Sunflower Lanyards) and increasing the number and convenience of ‘quiet hours’.
    6. Allowing for recovery – for example for providing a designated quiet area or seating for autistic people to rest

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