Danielle Woods says special autism awareness training should be rolled out nationwide to help adults and children with autism to have a stress-free shopping experience
A Kilkenny shopping centre has rolled out training for all staff working in the centre as part of an effort to increase autism friendly shopping.
Staff in up to 40 outlets of Market Cross Shopping Centre in Kilkenny City, as well as the centre’s cleaning and security teams, were being trained this month to boost their awareness of the needs of their shoppers with autism.
Market Cross Shopping Centre manager Lesley Cleere says the training is a vital part of the centre’s inclusion efforts to ensure that all shoppers feel welcome and supported.
“We have lots of different shoppers here each day – we want them all to feel happy, safe and comfortable.
“This initiative and training is not just about autism acceptance, but about the wider culture of learning how to make the shopping experience as pleasant as we can for all,” she said.
ABOVE: Autism advocate and training developer Maria Dollard with Market Cross Shopping Centre Manager Lesley Cleere in Golden Discs, one of the stores where autism awareness training is being rolled out Pictures: Christine Tobin, Solas Media Solutions
“Customer service is imperative in retail and it’s always evolving,” she added. “Traditionally, it has always been about communication. Now, it’s more than that – understanding the body language of someone who is struggling or uncomfortable is vital, as it’s not always obvious that someone is on the spectrum. Whether children or adults, autism affects people in different ways.
“Retailers and their staff are trained to a high standard and we need to go further now and think laterally, how can we give the best possible service to those who struggle with communication, such as our shoppers on the autism scale.”
Maria Dollard, mum to Lucy (27) and an autism advocate says her daughter is just one of the many autistic shoppers at Market Cross and across the city, and says this training and awareness is vital.
“Lucy loves shopping but like many with autism, her routine and structure has been thrown due to Covid. Her need to feel safe as she returns to her normal activities is important.
“If Lucy feels anxious while shopping, she just needs to be allowed to take her time and have some space to reduce her stress.”
Maria devised the training presentation in association with KITE (Kilkenny Initiative for Training & Education) and it contains the dos and don’ts of supporting people with autism while they are in the store, as well as support for creating sensory maps.
Outlet staff are given tips on how to communicate with a person that is feeling overwhelmed, with information also on how to assist a carer when a person with autism become stressed out in store.
“For some shoppers, they will be sensitive to stress signals and tone of voice,” said Maria. “So, a calm tone is important and never hurry someone when they are overwhelmed. Also, eye contact is not necessary.”
She says that, based on national rates, there was an estimated 1,000 to 1,500 autistic people in Kilkenny.
She says that in the 1990s, when Lucy was a toddler, there was no awareness of autism and Maria was often scolded by retailers for what they perceived as her daughter’s ‘bad behaviour’.
“That’s all changed now but the fear of it and stigma is still there,” she said. “We hope we can start to chip away at that through this new education.”
Danielle Woods is a retail assistant in Art and Hobby in the shopping centre and mum to Ciarán, her four-year-old, recently diagnosed with autism.
“He has social and communication issues. I couldn’t just randomly bring him shopping, for example. The radio, music, air-con sounds – it would all overwhelm him.”
She says Ciarán could walk out of a store and onto the street to get away from noise.
“It is a coping mechanism for him but it’s terrifying for me because he could disappear in a second.”
As a retail worker, Danielle says that it’s important that retailers realise too that those with autism are not always children.
“We do get adults into our store who are on the spectrum. When some adults or children become distressed it’s important that they, their parent or carers, know if they don’t want to leave the store, we can provide a quiet space for them as needed.
“When they have an episode, they like to just have some quiet time in a corner of the store and that’s ok – we get it, and we support them through it.”
She believes all retailers should have autism education: “We make the world of assumptions about people with autism, and those assumptions can be so harmful.”
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