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Retailers Rethink the Holiday Shopping Experience for Customers With Autism

With a few simple accommodations, brands can make their stores a lot more inclusive.

A mall Santa hangs out with two young children.
A mall Santa event organized through Autism Speaks and the Noerr Programs.
Photo: Autism Speaks

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This Sunday, the Holyoke Mall in Massachusetts will open three hours early, at 8 a.m. The mall’s management won’t turn on the overhead music, as it usually does, and the team will set up an area with comfortable seating and coloring materials where shoppers can decompress.

The two-hour event is designed to carve out space for adults and children with autism spectrum disorder and their families to do their holiday shopping. While navigating packed parking lots and stores can be a stressful experience for anyone at this time of year, the crowds, long lines, noise, and flashing lights that come with it can be overwhelming for people with autism, many of whom are hypersensitive to stimuli that others can tune out.

“Those fun events like holiday shopping or visiting Santa are milestones that a family affected by autism might not try or participate in,” says Lindsay Naeder, the director of the Autism Response Team at Autism Speaks, an advocacy and support organization.

With some forethought, though, retailers and shopping centers can make the experience much more inclusive.

The Holyoke Mall has been holding sensory-friendly shopping events at least three times a year since 2014, when Autism Speaks reached out to see if it would organize a back-to-school event of this nature, says Lisa Wray, the mall’s director of marketing. The shopping center works with the Noerr Programs, a company that sends professional Santa Clauses and Easter Bunnies to malls, on mall visits designed for children with autism.

Major retailers with store fleets across the country have also taken to the idea of offering hours tailored to people with autism spectrum disorder, though largely on a local level. JCPenney in Dallas participated for back-to-school, and earlier this month, a Target location in Lancaster, Pennsylvania opened early for quiet shopping hours. Some Chuck E. Cheese’s — including ones in Attleboro, Massachusetts and Glen Burnie, Maryland — have begun to hold “Sensory Sensitive Sundays” once a month.

This morning, a Costco in East Peoria, Illinois created a quiet shopping experience from 8:00 to 9:30 a.m.

In 2014, Toys R Us’s entire UK store fleet set aside time for sensory-friendly shopping hours. Stateside, the company has encouraged individual stores to do the same based on local interest as it figures out how to scale events like these nationally, says Candace Disler, a rep for the toy and games chain.

As mall and store events go, accommodations for quiet shopping hours are relatively simple to execute, Naeder says. Most of it depends on subtracting input, like turning off the music, dimming lights, and asking stores to have their employees gently direct customers rather than using the loudspeaker for announcements. Beyond that, businesses can ask Autism Speaks to provide information about autism to its staff to help improve their customer service. It’s a little more work up front, Naeder says, but that education continues to pay off in the future.

“What we’ve seen is that businesses that invest in being autism friendly, our families are very brand loyal to. They will forever support that business,” says Naeder.

“Target has won me over multiple times,” says Lauren Prince, whose younger brother, Madison, is a 27-year-old with autism. “They see when Madison gets edgy [in line to check out], and they’ll have a clerk open a new lane to accommodate his inability to wait.”

Growing up, the Princes would often go grocery shopping just before closing time and to the mall first thing in the morning or later in the evening to avoid overstimulation that could lead to meltdowns. Though Lauren and Madison don’t go shopping together often now — she lives in New York and he in DC — she sees retailers’ sensitivity to sensory stimuli as particularly meaningful to adults with autism, and especially during the holidays, when shopping becomes a big part of American culture.

“When there are programs that let people come into a quote-unquote ‘normal’ environment that’s adjusted to be cognizant of their comfort zone, that’s amazing, not just for the individual, but for the family,” Prince says.