Learning Disability Today
Supporting professionals working in learning disability and autism services

Making shopping more accessible for autistic children

Shopping can be a challenging experience for children on the autistic spectrum. With increased restrictions on where we can and can’t go due to the coronavirus pandemic, our shopping habits have come under scrutiny.

Here, Rachel Clinkard, from shoe retailer Charles Clinkard, shares how their business has been able to adapt their shops to make them more autism-friendly. Shopping can be an overwhelming experience for autistic children.

Bright lights, loud noises, crowds, and the unpredictable nature of being out and about can all be extremely uncomfortable, leading to anxiety, sensory overload, and different – potentially distressing – ways of communicating discomfort. This can make shopping a very challenging time for both autistic children themselves and their families.

Retailers can change the shopping experience

But retailers can do their part to help make their shops more comfortable places for autistic children.

For the last few years at Charles Clinkard, we’ve been able to offer families extra support during the shopping and shoe fitting process to ensure that autistic children are comfortable. You can learn more about the scheme on our autism awareness page.

The scheme has been a great success and we’ve had excellent feedback from families who have told us that it made the process of shopping for new shoes much less stressful and more bearable for their children.

“For the first time ever he’s chosen his own shoes with the help of your outstanding staff”.

It also meant that children could get shoes that fit them properly and provide the right support. Whilst this is important for all children, autistic children are more likely to be diagnosed with joint hypermobility, making well-fitting shoes crucial for healthy development.

Adapt your environment and service

One way retailers can help autistic children is by adapting the environment in their stores to help reduce noise, bright light, and crowds. You could consider extending your opening times to provide a quiet hour a couple of times a week where you dim the lights and turn off any in-store video screens, tannoys, and music.

Of course, all people on the autistic spectrum experience the world differently, so there’s no set way that you can create an autism-friendly store that’s suitable for all children with the condition.

So, if possible, you’ll also want to provide a “break-out space” where children and their families can retreat to for a bit of quiet time if they become overwhelmed. This doesn’t need to be elaborate: just a quiet corner or space in a non-customer facing area with a couple of chairs or bean bags will work fine.

Offer a customised experience

Many companies have already signed up to the National Autistic Society’s Autism Hour, where shops extend their opening hours to provide an autism-friendly environment for shoppers. While this is certainly a welcome step in the right direction, it often doesn’t go far enough in terms of accommodating the unique, individual needs of people on the autistic spectrum. Therefore, I feel it’s important to offer a more customisable service that can be adapted to suit the specific needs of each individual child.

At Charles Clinkard, families can let the store manager know in advance about which needs their child has when they book their appointment. This way, we can make any changes to the environment at the store to create a safe and welcoming environment.

Families can also request a sensory pack to help them stay calm during their fitting. After the appointment, we ask for feedback so we can improve the process in future. We also keep each customer’s needs on file so we have them ready for future appointments.

Train your staff

If you want to support children with autism and their families, training your staff is probably the single most important measure you can take. If you provide your staff with detailed information and training on autism they’ll be much better equipped to offer an understanding, compassionate service that takes the needs of autistic customers into account.

Of all the elements of our autism-friendly service, it’s our knowledgeable, patient staff that get the most positive feedback from customers.

One parent, who visited our Sheffield store, said: “We took our son with ASD (autism spectrum disorder) to the adult shop so he could be fitted with new school shoes in peace. The staff went beyond our expectations of helpful and accommodating.

“For the first time ever he’s chosen his own shoes with the help of your outstanding staff”.

It just goes to show what a difference good staff training can make to families with autistic children.

Build relationships with autistic customers

Giving customers the chance to be fitted by the same staff member every time they visit can help create a more consistent routine, which helps children with autism to cope with being in what may seem like a very stressful and unpredictable environment.

Shopping for shoes can be challenging as they need to be physically fitted in store. But we’ve found that allowing families to form a connection with staff members can help to reduce the anxiety this causes.

One parent, who has been visiting our Leeds store for a number of years, told us how helpful it was for her daughter to be fitted by the same staff member every time. “Whenever we entered the shop, Julie would always see us straight away, and having a familiar face was always massively helpful”, she explained.

So, if it’s something your shop can accommodate, you could try to make sure that each customer can request a dedicated staff member. This way, children know exactly they can expect when they come shopping.

The world can be uncomfortable and even painful for autistic children but by following the steps I’ve outlined here, this impact can be minimised whilst buying shoes.

Rachel Clinkard, from shoe retailer Charles Clinkard

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