Wednesday 16 January 2019

Adam Harris on autism: 'I would go around supermarkets with my hands over my ears'

Adam Harris Credit: Frank Mc Grath
Adam Harris Credit: Frank Mc Grath
Geraldine Gittens

Geraldine Gittens

A new initiative is being rolled out across Supervalus around the country to make its outlets more “autism-friendly”.

Two years ago, one of its stores, Scally's Supervalu in Clonakilty, Co Cork became the first to introduce one evening every week where it reduced the amount of sensory stimulation in the shop – and made it a more amenable environment for autistic people.

Adam Harris, founder of AsIAm, a group which advocates for the autism community, says that the language used to describe autism is very important. His organisation prefers to refer to the community he advocates for as “autistic people”, as opposed to “people with autism”.

Harris worked with Supervalu and the UK’s Middletown Centre for Autism in a consultation process to devise core ways to improve the shopping experience for autistic people.

Now, as part of the initiative, more shops will have more autism-friendly shopping times where the music and in-store announcements will be turned off, the lights will be lowered and there’ll be a fast track till service.

Staff have received training in autism awareness, and autism-friendly trolleys will be available.

Harris added: “This is a really mainstream business taking this on board, making it autism friendly and it mainstreams autism and accessibility for autistic people in the community, by accepting and embracing it in store.”

“They’ve worked with ourselves and the Middletown Centre for Autism on this. We’ve looked at every aspect of the customer’s journey. It started in Scally’s Supervalu in Clonakilty with a quiet evening where they would turn the music off and lower the lights and make it a calmer environment.”

“You can go to a section on their website,, where you can prepare for your visit. It’ll tell you things that autistic people might find stressful. The environment can be very overwhelming, and you can prepare for that by listening to different noises in the environment, like the beep on the till, the butcher’s counter, the noises of the machines, the tannoy system, you can stop and start the noises and become used to it on the website.”

He added: “There is a map of every Supervalu in the country, and that’s accompanied by actual images of the stores as well as the map. The map is marked with low intensity and high intensity areas. The quieter areas might be where the toilet products are and the tinned products.”

The changes won’t just be of benefit to autistic people but also to elderly people or people with dementia, as well as other vulnerable groups, Harris added.

Educating staff and the general public about autism will lead to acceptance, he says.

“The most exciting thing perhaps is that there’s a real commitment to educate staff and customers. The first step to being autism friendly is awareness and understanding. People can have awareness but the gap can be the understanding – what does it actually mean to have autism?”

Harris says: “I might have to do certain things in a different way and I might be judged for that. Some people might experience a meltdown, which looks like a tantrum, but it isn’t, it’s when an autistic person reaches a point where they’re so distressed that they’re not able to communicate what they’re feeling.”

“It happens when they’ve been trying so hard to integrate into the environment and cope and they’re not actually able to manage anymore.”

“Often when we see a person upset, we want to talk to them, but actually you need to give them space.”

“What are the little things as a member of the public you can do? Being accepting, realising that people with autism might do something which is called stimming,” he explained.

Stimming is the repetition of physical movements, sounds, or repetitive movement of objects common in individuals with developmental disabilities, and most prevalent in people with autism spectrum disorders.

“I personally, when I was younger, found supermarkets a very stressful place, the high pitched noises… I would go around with my hands over my ears. Giving the feedback on what that environment is like for an autistic person, it’s very interesting to see the things I would be aware of that other people wouldn’t.”

Last month, Dublin City University was recognised as the world’s first autism-friendly university by AsIAm.

“Imagine if every community in Ireland was autism friendly. I would love to see every supermarket, every business in the country becoming autism friendly.”

He added: “We wanted to make sure autistic people could not only go to uni but also go into the workforce as well.”

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