The first time I went to the grocery store during sensory-friendly hours, late last winter, it was an accident. I tried to stay away so that autistic people and others who needed a quieter environment for shopping could have some space. Then one Sunday night, I forgot and dropped by without thinking.
It was a dream. I have post-traumatic stress disorder, and often find myself cranky and upset in grocery stores. Crowding is a big trigger for me, and loud noises can be awful too. (Trying to select some broccoli while a strange man brushes up against me to the ear-splitting wails of “Walking on Sunshine” is my seventh layer of hell, in other words). People with PTSD are often hypervigilant because their systems are stuck in a place of continually scanning for threats. It may seem odd to feel threatened in a grocery store, but it’s a noisy, chaotic, in some ways unpredictable environment, which can be triggering.
Floating along in silence in dimmed lighting, on the other hand, was heavenly. There were very few people in the store, and no music, beeping, hollering, paging Sharon in produce, or corny ’80s tunes making me want to die of second-hand embarrassment.
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Now, due to COVID-19, grocery shopping is a dystopian nightmare for everyone. And masks aren’t exactly helping the situation for many autistic people, according to a piece by Dr. Robyn Thom and Karen Turner on the Harvard Health blog. The scratchiness of them, the tug of elastic on the ears, the buildup of hot breath around the face: these uncomfortable feelings are, they write, “intensely magnified” for people on the spectrum. For autistic people and others with sensory sensitivities, though, grocery stores and other public places often felt like hellscapes even before the pandemic. Kelly Bron Johnson is autistic, and so is her youngest son. She describes grocery stores, malls and movie theatres as “an assault on the senses.” Bright lights, loud noises, and unpredictable, chaotic environments can cause extreme discomfort.
“It’s draining,” Johnson says. “It’s like when you have a migraine and become really sensitive; some people can’t take any light or sound. Imagine if you had that kind of feeling all the time. That’s why a lot of autistic people will feel pain on our skin when there’s air blowing on it or someone touches it. Because there’s so much stimulus coming at us all the time, we can’t filter it.” Scientists are still figuring out exactly why this is the case, but what is known is that many autistic people also experience anxiety as well as sensory sensitivity.
So some grocery stores are making shopping more accessible. In the summer of 2019, some Sobeys locations started holding dedicated sensory-friendly hours every Sunday evening. By December, 450 stores in the Sobeys family nationwide offered them. These hours can help not only autistic people and those with PTSD, but also some seniors, those with small babies, and people who have had concussions. Several stores in B.C. offer these hours too. But Johnson says that in Montreal, where she lives, there are no quiet hours to be found.
“It shouldn’t have to feel like you’re shopping in a battleground, but that’s often how it does feel.”
Usually, either she or her partner will grocery shop while the other parent stays home with the children, or one will go with one child, while the other stays home with her autistic son, who doesn’t like to go.
“If it was quieter and calmer, maybe he would want to come with me and we could all go out as a family,” she says. “It shouldn’t have to feel like you’re shopping in a battleground, but that’s often how it does feel.”
In the early days of COVID-19, grocery shopping spurred a few panic attacks for Johnson: she was triggered by the sight of people in masks and gloves, and, like everyone, she was scared, because we were still learning about the virus and how it’s transmitted. But she has found that many COVID-related changes are helpful as a filter for some sensory experiences. She enjoys having personal space, and as a smaller, shorter person, she feels safer now that no one can stand directly behind her and breathe down her neck. Masks protect her from other people’s smells and perfumes, which also helps her to feel more comfortable. And curbside pickup has been a game-changer: “Not having to go into a store has been great,” she says. But she says many autistic teens she knows are experiencing so much anxiety that they find it impossible to leave the house.
Another game-changer would be the widespread adoption of quiet hours across Canada. Johnson says dedicated quiet hours would mean her family could shop and not be stared at by others. When her young son is humming and flapping with his hands, she gets accusatory or pitying looks. She fires back a quizzical look of her own, and then, if they don’t stop, she just joins the party and starts humming along with him.
She says the real accommodation needs to come from society as a whole: that we need to pass less judgment on people who may be behaving differently.
“Any time we make any sort of accommodation for somebody with a disability, it makes life easier for others,” Johnson says. “I would like to really see these kinds of accessibility features normalized so that people don’t look at it like ‘oh, that’s for those people.’ People are anxiously waiting for these changes to be made,” Johnson says.
As for me, writing this article made me realize I need to pick up a few things. But I’m pretty sure it can wait until Sunday.
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