Two people are looking at food products in the supermarket. The man is pushing the trolley while the woman in a headscarf is holding out an item for him to look at. behind them an aisle of fresh food is visible out of focus.

“It would be really great if you could look online and like find a layout of the store in advance so that you could then write a shopping list that was like in vaguely the right order, and know where you like, know what route you had to go to get the things you wanted, like I feel like that would be helpful”

focus group participant

In our focus groups, people identified that supermarkets in particular can be challenging sensory environments for a range of reasons. They are a highly multi-sensory environment, which often has bright, unnatural lighting and a lack of windows/natural light. Often the floor can be highly reflective which further accentuates this light in the space. The shelves can be tall and visually overwhelming. In particular, people identified that the noises in supermarkets can be overwhelming such as from tannoys, trolleys, checkouts, self-scan machines, background music and other customers.  

The lack of personal space can make them less accessible and people identified that they find them easier to cope with when they are less busy. People identified that supermarkets frequently change their layouts. This increase in unpredictability makes it more difficult to plan ahead and limit time spent in this environment.

The benefits of quiet hours were identified, but people reported the need for these to be at more widely accessible times. It can also be difficult to be able to escape/take a break to recover in supermarkets, as often the barriers designed to prevent theft can make it more difficult to leave if needed.

People identified that they can feel rushed at the checkouts, and having to communicate verbally with the staff can add additional pressure. It was identified that staff lack an understanding of autism and sensory processing and would benefit from additional staff training, including for schemes such as the Sunflower Lanyard.

Questions for businesses and organisations to think about:

  • Is it possible to have a layout of the store available in advance for people to use? Can people be warned when there are going to be large changes and alterations to the layout of the store?
  • Is it possible to put information online about which times are the most busy or quietest in the store?
  • Can the aisles be widened or one way systems introduced to smaller stores to reduce the number of people walking around the aisles?
  • Are there alternative means to pay which can reduce the communication load such as self-service checkouts or scan as you go?
  • Is it possible to alter the sensory environment to make the supermarket more accessible? For example, can you change the lighting or reduce the level of noise by lowering the volume of certain machines?
  • If the above changes cannot be implemented all the time, are there quieter times in the day where these can occur? How can autistic people learn about these times?

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