William O’Dwyer believes the decision by Sobeys to offer a sensor-friendly shopping time every two weeks is a positive step.
The support coordinator for Autism Nova Scotia – Pictou County Chapter says for people who suffer from sensory overload – including those with autism – shopping can be an overwhelming experience.
“There’s a lot of noise going on all the time,” said O’Dwyer. “There’s carts coming and going. They’re moving (carts) down the aisle and stocking shelves. That’s on top of all the other customers. It’s quite a loud situation.”
Add to that unpredictable announcements over the PA system, he said, and you create a situation “that can really push someone who does have autism over the edge.”
Sobeys officially expanded its sensory-friendly shopping to all Nova Scotia locations Sunday. The program will continue every other Sunday from 6 to 7 p.m.
Following a successful pilot program in P.E.I., Sobeys partnered with Autism Nova Scotia to expand across both provinces. Sensory-friendly shopping addresses challenges experienced by many people, including individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorder, by decreasing visual and auditory stimuli in the grocery store environment.
“The grocery store is a central hub of the community. It is important to us that everyone feels welcome at Sobeys,” said Paul MacLeod, vice president, Atlantic Store Operations. “We’re really excited to see how customers react; so far the feedback has been really positive.”
To create a sensory-friendly shopping environment Sobeys will:
• reduce lighting by 50 per cent;
• silence all sound from PA systems, music, telephones, scanners and registers;
• encourage staff to speak softly;
• refrain from gathering shopping carts;
• hang visual aids around popular grocery items such as apples, bread, milk and eggs;
• position a manager at the front of the store to support customers.
“Not only will this make grocery shopping more accessible for individuals on the autism spectrum, it will benefit all people with sensory challenges,” said Cynthia Carroll, executive director at Autism Nova Scotia. “We know for many, this initiative will have a dramatic impact on their quality of life and we are grateful that Sobeys is implementing this across Nova Scotia."
Lori Rhyno, director of Sobeys store operations in Northern Nova Scotia, and mother to a child with sensory challenges, took a leadership role in implementing the new program.
“Grocery shopping as a family can be particularly difficult for us, and I understand firsthand how many Sobeys customers may benefit from our sensory-friendly shopping hour.”
Rhyno said she was particularly touched and inspired by a letter Sobeys received from the Grade 3 class of Greenfield Elementary School in Cape Breton, encouraging the company to introduce sensory-friendly shopping.
“It warms my heart to know that my child is growing up in a world where friends and classmates better understand special needs and advocate for inclusion.”
O’Dwyer believes it will open up opportunities for people to slowly introduce their children with autism to the grocery store environment.
“It’s a place where parents can start to integrate where the barrier to entry has been lowered.”