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'I’ve been that soldier, where people are tutting and rolling their eyes'

Autism-friendly events are helping families have less stressful experiences at shops and cinemas.

image1 Samantha and Evan Source: Samantha Judge

A NUMBER OF shops and businesses around Ireland have introduced autism-friendly events in recent years.

These may involve supermarkets not playing music and lowering their lighting and till sounds. Some shops also allow a family with an autism card to skip the queue.

At cinema events, the lights are raised beyond normal levels and sound systems are lowered to make entertainment experiences more suitable for those with sensory sensitivities.

Autism Ireland works with individual stores or shopping centres to help them become more autism-friendly.

The organisation has a behaviour analyst who examines a space to see if it could cause a sensory overload for some people with autism.

Samantha Judge, CEO of Autism Ireland, said the organisation only gives its stamp of approval to venues that meet certain requirements, adding that some locations will never be autism-friendly due to their layout and potential safety issues.

“We’ll tell people, ‘Don’t call this an autism-friendly store, it’ll never work no matter what you do.’ There could be issues with lighting, the layout, music, safety concerns. A lot of people with autism are escape artists. So many environmental things can affect them.”

Training staff 

Autism Ireland has worked with a number of Lidl and Supervalu stores, for example, to make them more autism-friendly, and is currently helping Dundrum Shopping Centre and Kildare Village do the same.

Judge told TheJournal.ie the organisation generally works with individual stores rather than chains as it doesn’t have the capacity to visit every shop owned by a particular chain in Ireland.

Autism Ireland usually trains store managers who in turn train their staff.

“The management of the shopping centre become autism-friendly and then their staff are trained. Then they appoint champions who engage with other stores,” Judge explained.

She said it’s vital that staff are properly trained so they can respond responsibly to various situations that may occur.

Last month, Lidl Ireland apologised to a mother and son who were told to leave one of its Dublin stores because they had an autism assistance dog with them. At the time, the company told TheJournal.ie: “We are aware of the incident that took place and apologise unreservedly to the customer for the inconvenience and any distress it caused.”

The company said it was investigating what happened, noting that its current policy allows guide dogs and autism assistance dogs in stores and “unfortunately in this instance, a human error was made on our part”.

Lidl recently announced a phased introduction of a two-hour ‘Autism Aware’ shopping experience one evening a week to all its stores across the island of Ireland. This rollout is to begin on Monday, World Autism Awareness Day. The subsequent events are due to run every Tuesday from 6-8pm.

Supervalu has a list of stores that provide autism-friendly shopping evenings around the country and is introducing a trolley dubbed ALF (Autism Lifeskill Friend) to 50 of its stores nationwide.

Source: TheJournal.ie/YouTube

The AFL was designed by a SuperValu employee and his wife, inspired by their son who has autism. It features a visual guide that gives a young person a task to focus on as they move through the shop.

Meanwhile, Shannon Airport last year launched Europe’s first sensory room tailored for passengers who are living with autism.

‘We’re all in this together’

Judge’s nine-year-old son Evan has autism.

She said: “He’s just such a happy boy, he’s quite sociable in his own way. It may be a little bit different but that’s okay, different is good.

“He can communicate his needs to us very well. He could say hi to you but then could be stuck as to what to say next.

“He may be able to say two key words in a sentence but could understand five key words. For example, if I said, ‘There’s a purple hair brush in the other room, can you go and get it?’, he’d understand the instruction.”

image2 Samantha and Evan Source: Samantha Judge

Judge said it took several visits to the cinema over the course of about three years before Evan sat through an entire film.

“I went to the cinema with him for two to three years before we ever got to sit through a full movie. It’s practice, practice, a little bit more, a little bit longer.

“Now when we’re there he will say ‘I want to jump’ and we’ll go out to the foyer and he’ll jump and then we’ll go back inside and continue to watch the film.”

Judge said autism-friendly events are a great initiative, noting: “There’s a sense of community among the families and we’re all in this together.

I’ve been that soldier, where I’m somewhere with Evan and people are tutting and rolling their eyes … I’m trying to go through the experience with my son, where I understand what’s happening but the people around me don’t necessarily understand.

Judge stresses that, while this has been her family’s experience, no two people on the autistic spectrum are the same.

Evan was privately diagnosed with autism at the age of two.

“He was nearly four by the time he was diagnosed by the HSE,” Judge said, adding that those extra two years of intervention, including speech and language therapy, were vital.

“It cost us a bloody fortune, we took out a loan and tightened our belts but we were able to do it … but I know a lot of parents can’t do that.”

Judge said Autism Ireland wants to offer subsidised intervention to help families who are struggling financially.

The organisation is holding an event at its national office in Multyfarnham, Mullingar from 1-4pm on Monday to mark World Autism Awareness Day. There’ll be an Easter egg hunt and other activities for children.

A radio broadcast, supported by Heartbeat FM and G4S, will also air on the day. You can tune in from Dublin on 105.2FM and from Cork via 106.7FM, or listen online.

To register to attend Monday’s event, email your name and the number of guests to waad@autismireland.ie.

Autism Ireland will be running a number of other events throughout April, which is Autism Awareness Month. Blue Nose Week will run from 23-29 August. More information can be read here.

Read: Lidl Ireland apologises to mum and son who were told to leave store with autism assistance dog

Read: Trolleys like this can help shoppers with autism. They’re being introduced by SuperValu

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About the author:

Órla Ryan

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