On 2nd October this year, fourteen ‘Intu’ shopping centres in the UK will join with the National Autistic Society in their campaign to raise autism acceptance by holding an autism ‘quiet hour’. During this hour, lights in the shops will be dimmed, music turned down or off. According to NAS research, 64% of autistic people avoid shops wherever possible due to sensory difficulties or behaviours and reactions from others regarding their autism. 28% have actually been asked to leave a public place because of reasons associated with the condition. It seems there’s still a very long way to go in raising awareness and acceptance, and, with the NAS estimating that there are 11 in every 1000 people on the spectrum, it’s more important than ever.
So, an autism ‘quiet hour’ is great! Isn’t it?
Well, no, actually. Whilst it’s admirable that Intu (as well as Clark’s Toys R Us and Asda, who have also held such events) want to help autistic people and their families to access shops more comfortable, it feels just a little tokenistic.
I’m not entirely sure how offering low lights and quieter shops for one hour, once a year is helping?
It may raise awareness, but then what? Once that hour is over, autistic people and their families go back to struggling with going shopping. Even if it did become a more regular event, it’s still not enough (and it’s not really an ‘event’, is it? And ‘event’, to me, means ‘fun’ – a party, celebrations, something to be enjoyed. ‘Endured’ may be more appropriate in this case, as a shopping trip at a specified hour not chosen by you, when it’s not something you undertake often, if at all, is not likely to be enjoyable no matter how quiet).
The thing is, going shopping is not a one-hour-once-a-year thing. We need to buy stuff all the time. Yes, there’s not much you can’t buy online these days, but why should autistic people and their families hide away in their homes, with only the postman or delivery driver to worry about? What about those who aren’t able to use online shopping? Why shouldn’t families be able to go out together like ‘typical’ families do? In fact, I’m pretty sure altering conditions in shops on a more regular or even permanent basis would also help many ‘typical’ families too!
By not making public places more accessible to all we are not doing much about promoting acceptance of autism and its quirks and behaviours, as it’s just not visible when people feel they can’t go out in public.
Then there are the practicalities of going out to public places. Many autistic children have delayed toileting skills and require specialised toilets in which to be changed. These are still few and far between. It’s all well and good offering a ‘quiet hour’, but if you aren’t going to be able to change if needed, then you possibly won’t bother.
I’m not asking that shops, restaurants and public places change completely in order to better accommodate autistic people; that’s clearly not practical. But I do feel that a ‘quiet hour’ whether once a year or more regularly isn’t enough either.
Autism awareness training for all who work with the public would go a long way to helping make public outings more bearable. It’s still the case that many people’s perception of autism is ‘Rain Man‘ and we need to educate them about the variations, challenges and realities of being on the spectrum. Even small adjustments can make a huge difference, such as the train crew member who recognised a family struggling on a busy train and moved them somewhere quieter.
Autism ‘quiet hour’ (still finding that name amusing, as autism is often the opposite of quiet!) is an admirable attempt to help families like ours, but we need to go further and make autism seen – and heard!