Making Sheffield more autism friendly

Imagine trying to buy a t-shirt, but the music in the shop being overwhelming. Or taking your child to watch a film at the cinema, but them being unable to cope with the dark and the rigidity. This is a daily reality for some of the 700,000 people on the autistic spectrum in the UK.

On April 1st, Sheffield will become the first city in the country to open high street shops early for autism friendly shopping hours. Sparkle Sheffield, a charity that “educates and empowers” parents with children with autism has organised for at least nine stores to make shopping easier for those on the spectrum.

In this time, none of the shops will play music and those that can will turn their lights down.

Liesje Dusauzay, CEO and founder of Sparkle Sheffield, known as Leesh, said: “We are doing this for those with autism, their parents and their carers”.

She said that Marks & Spencer have been the “remarkable flagship” store of the event – they will not only be opening early, but have also offered their personal shopping, bra fitting, suit advisors and other services.

Starbucks will offer a tick-list menu, that customers can hand to staff, instead of verbally ordering their coffee.

Marks & Spencer the “flagship store”

Toys R Us did introduce nationwide autism friendly shopping hours on Sunday mornings, but Leesh said this scheme was a “catch-22″ because the stores cannot trade that early, so parents take their children but have to wait to buy the toys.

She said that when Sparkle put on an autism friendly Santa’s Grotto, they had visitors as far away as Birmingham, and hopes this shopping day will have a similar appeal.

“We want people from outside of Sheffield to come into the city”, she said.

Sparkle have also committed to training up to 1000 staff – including those at Meadowhall, South Yorkshire Travel, Marks & Spencer, and Boots – in autism awareness.

Staff training is something that Joan Buckley, 68, thinks will help make day-to-day life better for people with autism and aspergers. Two of her grandsons, aged 21 and 18, are on the spectrum.

Joan recalled that transport staff sometimes question her grandsons’ disability travel cards, because autism is not a visible disability.

However, she also praised the Sheffield City Ambassadors for finding her youngest grandson when he went missing while shopping at Fargate.

“I let them loose to some shopping without me looking over their shoulders. You can imagine my panic when the oldest returned having lost his brother.

“We went to the Winter Gardens and the City Ambassadors were amazing – they checked CCTV, stayed with the oldest at my car and found the youngest in just 15 minutes.

“I try to give them as much freedom as possible, it scares me a lot less in the town centre knowing there is help for them and me.”

Joan also said the shopping hours were “a big hit” because her oldest hates music in shops, so he finds it much more comfortable. He also said that he struggles with prices not being clearly displayed in shops and finds it difficult to ask staff.

The Winter Gardens, Sheffield

However, one of the other flagship autism-friendly schemes in the city – sensory friendly film screenings – don’t work for her boys.

“They weren’t very keen on the film showings. The oldest is very rule orientated so in the cinema you sit, you watch the film and you are quiet.”

“Autism comes in all shapes and sizes, sometimes people forget there is a person underneath the diagnosis”, Joan said.

The VUE Cinema holds autism-friendly screenings on the last Sunday of every month. Their website says: “You’ll be asked to choose allocated seats but we do encourage guests to move around during the screening and make a bit of noise.”

Leesh, of Sparkle Sheffield, also said it is very difficult for autism friendly events to cater for every child because the spectrum is so wide.

“Not everybody is the same, there are always going to be some that are completely different. I think the main thing is that we have shops out there willing to try.”

Nevertheless, the autism-friendly film screenings have been very popular among a lot of parents.

Lauryn Green is only 17-years-old, yet she is at the forefront of the Safe Cinema project, which aims to make cinema more accessible to people with “neurological impairments and mental illnesses”.

“The response from parents has been really lovely, I’ve had some who have said their kid hasn’t been to the cinema in years”, she said.

She was awarded a £200 grant by the British Film Institute to raise awareness of schizophrenia through film, by putting on a festival at Showroom Cinema. This funding got pulled a few days before the festival was due to start.

“Three days later I had set up Safe Cinemas. It seemed like a shame that after all that work it wasn’t going to come to anything.”

Her first success was to help the Curzon cinema put on a safe-screening of the latest Lego Batman film.

The Curzon in Sheffield

According to Lauryn, it was the last cinema in Sheffield not to have autism friendly screenings. They had always wanted to but not been sure exactly how to do it.

She said: “People didn’t really have a great understanding of what needed to be done.”

In a normal autism friendly film screening the cinema: leaves the lights on, turns down the sound, allows people to move around, doesn’t show adverts, and allows people to bring in their own food.

The Curzon also set aside a quiet-room. Lauryn said that “outside of the screen it is still a really big cinema, there were some people who, before and after the film, just needed somewhere to be that was quiet”.

“Quite a lot of people I know have said that their mental illnesses meant that they couldn’t always do the things they wanted to do”, she said.

Feature picture credit: Nick Page via Flickr