Toy stores are dimming the lights and turning off the music. A ferris wheel is letting children and their parents stay on as long as they want. And cinemas are letting patrons wander around the theater if they don’t want to stay in their seat.
Those patrons are individuals with autism.
It’s “the equivalent of building wheelchair ramps or accessible bathrooms, except it’s for cognitive disabilities, rather than physical disabilities,” said Steve Silberman, autism expert and author of a book on the history of the condition.
Autism is sometimes accompanied by a heightened sensitivity to light, color, noise, and smells, which can cause anxiety or physical pain in individuals with the condition. But as general awareness of autism grows, more private businesses are changing their practices during select times to accommodate individuals with autism.
Some of the forerunners of the trend have been retailers. For individuals with autism, a trip to the store, with its bright lights and blaring background music, can be paralyzing. So, stores across the US and around the world have experimented with toning down the stimuli.
Often, these events occur around high-volume shopping times, like Christmas, Thanksgiving, and the back-to-school season. JCPenney, Target, and Toys R Us have experimented with holding “sensory friendly” shopping events in the US.
Tesco grocery stores in the UK are experimenting with holding “quiet hours” as well. A location in Crawley, England, is hosting the sessions once a week, on Saturdays from 9 to 10 a.m.; the six-week trial ends in just a few days. Another location in Scotland recently announced a “quiet hour” from 6 to 7 p.m. every Wednesday, the BBC reported.
“We will monitor feedback of the trial, but at this stage, there are no plans to roll out quiet hours in all Tesco stores,” a spokesperson said.
Last year, Toys R Us held such events in New Jersey, Louisiana, West Virginia, and Pennsylvania, a spokesperson said. One of those events occurred in December at the toy store in King of Prussia, Penn., and Patti Erickson, president of the greater Philadelphia chapter of the Autism Society of America, helped to organize it. For the first hour of the store’s business, the lights were dimmed and the music was turned off, and Autism Society members staffed a table with pamphlets about the condition. The event served not only as an opportunity for parents of children with autism to take their kids shopping, but also as an educational experience for anyone else who wandered into the store.
Often, such shopping events occur as the collaboration between a local autism advocacy group and a single retail outlet. The Tesco store in Crawley, England, is working with a local charity to implement its trial, a spokesperson said.
Beyond shopping, other public places have taken similar steps.
AMC Theatres has been running “sensory-friendly films” since 2008, a program that now encompasses 175 of its locations. The lights are on and the sound is turned down; patrons are also free to wander around the theater.
Spokesperson Ryan Noonan said the program began at just one theater where, at the urging of a patron, it screened a film in an autism-friendly setting. “There was a huge turnout, [it was] a huge success,” Noonan said.
So AMC expanded the program across the country with once-a-month screenings on Saturday mornings. But those people who were kids back in 2008 started to grow up, and their film tastes did too. About a year and a half ago, AMC added a weekly Tuesday night screening for more mature audiences, and started offering sensory-friendly films two Saturdays per month, both of which are offered at all participating theaters.
Similar film gatherings take place in Surfside Beach, S.C., where a local nonprofit, the Champion Autism Network, worked with a local movie theater to start showing sensory-friendly movies about three years ago. It also trains restaurants and hotels to understand how to interact with individuals with autism.
In December, the group tried a new outing — an event for children with autism at the SkyWheel, a ferris wheel in Myrtle Beach, just up the coast.
“We had over 150 [people] come, and one family spent an hour on the SkyWheel,” said executive director Becky Large. “They sat in that gondola for an hour and they loved it. It was such a great day.”
Individuals with autism who attended got a special card that they can show to SkyWheel operators to make their experience more enjoyable in the future, Large said. The card will allow them to skip to the front of the line, and operators will let those children ride for longer than usual, being more gentle about encouraging them to get off.
Next up on the group’s plans is a more ambitious target — renting out an entire Myrtle Beach amusement park for a two-hour event for autistic children, maybe on a Friday afternoon or Sunday morning before the park opens to the general public. Large is still fundraising for that event.
“It’s all about trying to have families have a normal family experience, whether that’s grocery shopping, a meal at a restaurant, or a movie,” Large said. “That would be wonderful.”