"Sensory-friendly shopping"--can someone explain?

I went to my local Safeway tonight, to get some groceries. It was during “sensory-friendly” hours. Apparently, that means the canned Muzak isn’t playing, there are no “Price check on 4” or “Customer service, line 1” announcements, and dimmed lighting–indeed, no lighting at all over the bakery and deli cases, though things on those shelves were still for sale.

A Google search on “sensory-friendly shopping” tells me that some people with autism find supermarkets, and their noises and lights, too stimulating. See here:

I didn’t care about the quiet or darkness, and I got my groceries, but I am interested in finding out just what bothers autistic people about the typical supermarket experience. How is it “too stimulating”? And just what does “too stimulating” mean?

My understanding is people on the spectrum don’t respond well to all the excess stimuli in public places. The sounds, lights, and activity just overload them. They might do better with auditory, visual stimulus kept at a minimum.
I’ve seen children melt down with mild autism symtoms. It’s not pretty.
Grocery stores are noisy, bright and busy. The smells alone could be a problem.
‘Too stimulating’ is relative to the individual.

Many autistic people process sensory input in a different way. The differences are in the higher processing parts of the brain (ie not the eyes, nose, skin etc ) and are yet to be fully explained. People with sensory processing difficulties can find it hard to ignore background noises, smells, lights that most other people wouldn’t even notice in the first place. This can be stressful, especially in a supermarket environment where both background and foreground sensory stimulants can be harsh (the lighting in particular can be horrible). Some sensations such as a persistent noise become experienced as actual pain. The person might also have some particularly acute senses (I think perfect pitch is more common with autistic people) which might sometimes provide enjoyment but can easily become a problem for them.

Also, autistic people can find being amongst a lot of people itself stressful, because of for example the expectation to know what to do in social interactions (also the smell of perfume and deodorant can be particularly difficult). All of these various stressors seem to raise autonomic arousal and hence the fight or flight response (some people add freeze to this). After each stressor the person needs time to become de-aroused, but when out and about this usually isn’t possible. Instead more stressors keep piling up so that there is a ratchet effect, the person become more and more aroused (stressed) and eventually has a shutdown or a meltdown. For a shopping centre to be truly autism friendly they need quiet rooms where people can go to take time out and manage their arousal levels so as to avoid a crisis.

Like most ASD things, there are analogs in ordinary neurotypical experience. Most people have SOMETHING that they find ‘too stimulating’ - for instance, if you’re trying to give some complicated instructions to somebody on the phone, and three of your family members are having a loud conversation about politics in the same room, you may well be tempted to tell them to shut up, right? Because even though, in theory it doesn’t involve you, it’s distracting - unless you’ve got really exceptional powers of concentration, you can’t help some of your attention being focussed on what they’re talking about, and not on this important task you’re trying to complete.

If you have a sensory processing problem (sensory processing disorder can be a thing in its own right, or it can come as a package with other ASD things) then everything takes more of your attention including things that ‘ought to be’ background stuff, and it’s distracting, and you can’t focus on what you were doing, like remembering your shopping list. And then you get stressed out and pissed off, like anyone would.

That’s pretty cool. I’m not on any spectrum (that I know of), but I’d find that a very soothing shopping experience.

I’m on the autistic spectrum, and I sometimes find it difficult to shop in supermarkets. It varies, though, from person to person, and for the same person at different times.

Some days I don’t mind too much, other days I’m hypersensitive. If I’m feeling sensitive, the noise can be overwhelming. More people and more activity makes it worse to deal with. I never go into a shop where there is loud music playing if I can avoid it. Noise is inherently stressful for me, but different types of noise have a different effect. Light is not a big issue for me, but I find flashing lights irritating, and I’ll always leave a web page if there are flashing items on it that I can’t stop.

I’d be in heaven! Like Drill Sergeant told us, “The eyes key on movement.” When the lights are up, I notice everything. If it moves, it grabs my gaze and I identify, analyze, and catalogue it. A grocery store is exhausting at the best of times. At work I am laser focused for 8+ hours on what other people find absolutely mind-numbing, as long as I can have the lights off (sunlight filtering in through the windows is generally dim enough to not be a problem). Turn on the lights and I see all sorts of interesting things, get derailed mentally, and start posting on message boards like a lunatic. I am very reactive emotionally to music. At work I’ve got a pretty impressive playlist of energetic and self-affirming tunes (aka punk rock) pumping out of the earbuds. Without it, I hear every conversation in earshot and try to follow them all. Nobody speaks much in the grocery store, but the Muzak (aka my high school playlist) pulls out all sorts of distracting, and invariably unpleasant, memories from 30+ years ago. Nevertheless, I can’t resist the spell and the music carries me off and it’s a struggle to stay focused on the shopping list. Lastly, I get tense in crowded situations. Sunday after church gets out turns the grocery store into a living nightmare: bright lights, lots of movement, emotional roller coaster music, and lots of people who think the grocery store is an extension of the church foyer so it must be alright for several well-dressed couples to just stand in the middle of an aisle chatting about stuff that’s got nothing to do with groceries…and oh my GOD I hate wearing pants and socks on top of all that!

Interesting. I’ve never been to a Safeway, so I’ve never encountered it. Any other businesses mimicking this methodology?

It’s not a business, exactly, but a lot of theaters (both professional and amateur) are starting to do “sensory-friendly performances”–my local community theater is one. The house lights are kept slightly up, any loud noises or flashes in the show are eliminated, audience members are allowed to get up and move around if they want to, or even sing and dance along at musicals. There is also a quiet area in the lobby that people can go to if they need it. Often there’s also some educational materials available for the audience beforehand, describing what’s going to happen in the show and what it’s like getting to the theater, buying tickets, finding a seat, and so forth, so that people know what to expect.

I know sometimes shopping is highly unpleasant - too many people bring out my fight or flight reflexes - touch me wrong, and I would either punch you or run away. Bright lights, loud noises, anything that would overstimulate a toddler, especially if I am tired from something - being out of spoons makes everything worse. I have PTSD from abuse on top of being on the spectrum, and my physical health is trashed so I have fewer spoons than normal right now which makes it worse. Oddly enough I can be at home, and crank techno with really flashy graphics and be fine, concentrate to the point of monomania - but and it is a big but, I feel safe and am doing it on my own so it does not affect me like if I walked into someplace and got ‘light bombed’ and ‘sound bombed’ with a bunch of strangers around.

[I have issues in crowds also because I had a stalker for close to 25 years that I needed to be chary about.]


You do realize that punching someone is a crime, right?

So is touching someone without their consent.

Moderator Note

Irrelevant to the question in the OP. Drop the hijack.

General Question Moderator

I’m not on the spectrum, but the grocery store can be an overwhelming and unpleasant experience. I usually go as late as possible, when it is less crowded and yes, sometimes a bit dimmer than usual.

I’m not on the spectrum (that I’m aware) but at least half the time I’m grocery shopping, I have to physically stick my fingers into my ears like a child.

I usually do this while doing - or trying to do - a price comparison. It’s hard enough for me to do mental math without also having “Where Have All The Cowboys Gone” or some shit like that blaring into my head.

I hope this gets extended to airports. So sick of having TV piped in everywhere to the point that it’s inescapable.

Someone once accused me of being on the spectrum, but looking at symptoms I really don’t think I am at all. That said, I hate shopping for a lot of reasons and I suspect at least some of those reasons would be gone in a sensory friendly environment. So count me in as a supporter.

Right, because airports should change based on your personal preference.:dubious:

Because I’m obviously the only person in the world who feels this way. If I were, this wouldn’t exist. Airports are just one of the places I notice obtrusive TVs the most.

It seems to have become popular in this store, in the time since its introduction last fall. (Note that though the program is a few months old, I haven’t had to go to the store during sensory-friendly shopping hours until last night.) Certainly, the store had more people in it than I would have expected on a Monday evening, and I’m sure that not all were particularly sensitive to a “normal” supermarket experience. I did find it a rather soothing shopping experience, myself.

Thanks for the responses folks. I understand better now.