I'm an autistic WA woman, and I reject 'quiet hour' at Coles

Georgie Elle

Supermarkets intentionally slaughter their customers with bright lights and music to influence their buying decisions.

Loud PA announcements, crashing trolleys, changes in temperature, smells from the bakery, deli, gardening department, butcher, seafood, staff with their large oversized trolleys parked in aisles in the way filling shelves that you have to carefully manoeuvre around...

Coles introduced a quiet hour to its shops in the eastern states.

Photo: Edwina Pickles

Not to mention the way they present items on the shelves, and how so often those shelves are a mess, incessant chatter from checkout staff about items they place in your bags, the 20 questions about loyalty cards, do you want 15 cent bags, how are you paying, do you want cash out with that?

It's overwhelming, and a complete onslaught to the senses for autistic people.

I want to talk about this because my turning four-year-old son and I both have great difficulty with sensory overload and burn-out, and shopping is very, very difficult for us.

Of course, I am speaking only for myself and my experience as an autistic woman with an autistic son, not the autistic community collectively, but I believe this needs to be said.

Georgie and her son.

Georgie and her son.

Photo: Georgie Elle

Recently, select Coles Supermarkets in Australia have began offering a "quiet hour".

From 10.30am to 11.30am on Tuesdays, store lights in more than 100 stores nationally will be dimmed 50 per cent, the radio will be switched off and the volumes of registers and scanners will be reduced to a minimum.

Trolley collections will halt and roll cages will be removed from the shop floor, while announcements will be made only in emergencies. Additional staff will be rostered on to support customers.

And I know many people think it is great that Coles have availed themselves to autistics to shop for one hour a week in select locations, but I find it offensive.

I really think we need to look at it for what that is truly about — because it is not to support autistics or people with sensory issues.

You see, with apparently good intentions, Coles has made it very hard for us even to participate in this offer.

Georgie first wrote to WAtoday about her concerns with the initiative last week.

Georgie first wrote to WAtoday about her concerns with the initiative last week.

Photo: Georgie Elle

Autistics like myself and my son enjoy routine and systems, and appreciate going to familiar places where we can anticipate change, difficulty, and expect what they expect.

Travelling out of area to a participating store is stressful and anxiety-inducing.

Also, many autistics have jobs, go to school, and have other commitments through the week which means we would need to take time out from our life to participate in the autistic-friendly shopping hour on offer… yeah. That’s not going to happen.

Not to mention if you get there at the beginning or the end of that hour and you're not ready and bam: clock ticks over — onslaught begins.

Autistics will not easily change what they do to factor a "quiet hour" in, without difficulty or stress in another area for them.

Caught in unfamiliar ground and situation and challenged is a terrific recipe for a significant meltdown or anxiety attack.

Interestingly, I bet this is the time of least revenue for Coles in a week, so marketing an “event” is a way of attracting more revenue, otherwise if truly accommodating autistics, why not make this hour — or longer — at a time more of us could participate?

Let me ask you this: do we ask folks in wheelchairs to go shopping at select stores for an hour a week where we will put out ramps on the steps and make sure we have trolleys they can use to shop, that will be whipped up either side of that hour?

Aspect's community engagement and operations manager Linzi Coyle said a simple trip to the shops can be difficult for many individuals and families.

Aspect's community engagement and operations manager Linzi Coyle said a simple trip to the shops can be difficult for many individuals and families.

Photo: Gabriele Charotte

Do we tell them if they have trouble reaching something on the shelves that one hour a week we will put on extra staff to help you grab those top shelf items to take home with you?

We wouldn’t dare. Because it’s a disability we can see… and that would be, like… against the law, right?

Telling disabled person we are going to make an effort to accomodate you one hour a week in select stores?

Would the public go, "oh that’s awesome Coles… it’s a great start!"?

Would we be telling those dependent on wheelchairs who are feeling insulted with the announcement to be grateful and stop finding problems? Because that's what I was told on social media when I spoke up about this.

The difficulty with autism is it is invisible for many of us, until it is too late and then it is a mash of confusion, misunderstanding, judgement, police, mental health facilities — horrible.

And because there is a huge lack of understanding of how autism is for so many people and the great variation of experiences of us all, it’s hard to “profile” an autistic to help others help us.

We cannot be “trusted" to speak for ourselves because the professionals will say we struggle with communication and expressing ourselves; the truth and fact is we have a harder time being heard than expressing ourselves.

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WA Coles stores turn down the volume to support customers with autism

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WA Coles stores turn down the volume to support customers with autism

All of us express ourselves, it’s just that people are not listening.

My guess is that Coles is using the autistic community to get the "human connective vibe" happening with their customers after the upset of the moral compass disaster with the plastic bags.

"Let’s throw a token bone to the autistics, and everyone will think we are thoughtful, and including them, because you know… autistics should have sympathy because it is a horrible plight!"

But it's not just us that struggle with shopping at the best of times.

Babies, aged people, people with mental health challenges, tired parents with kids in tow, people who are grieving, people who are seriously ill… all these people and more will also suffer with affects of this sensory overload, and it affects the way their brain and nervous system responds.

Just look around a supermarket and you will see plenty of evidence of this if you observe people trying to do what is painful to them.

So if Coles is truly concerned for those people affected by their senses onslaught, they would just turn down the lights and the music, clean up the aisles and train the staff to be accomodating.

They might offer to waive their home delivery fees.

They could say: "hey, let us know the specifics of your requests so we can help you feel certain about what you will get being as close to what you ordered as possible, we will do the shopping for you and deliver it and we won’t disadvantage you financially to do that."

But nope. A simple solution and it's not happening.

Another point I think is important to make is that they know we live in such an ableist society, the majority of people are going to "applaud" this move. That it’s a good start and that people should be grateful, and this is being inclusive.

The initiative has received a positive response from eastern states shoppers.

The initiative has received a positive response from eastern states shoppers.

Photo: Supplied

They will try to quell the upset of autistics by saying "some people just can’t be pleased or be happy or grateful".

Because sadly, unconsciously, most people believe those with a disability are not as entitled to have access and opportunity like everyone else in our society… that we are not worthy of consultation or being heard.

That we may not have great ideas to be contributing to helping make the world a better place. That we should have lower standards for pay, for living, for assistance, for how people interact with us, socialise with us, how we parent and what our kids should have, be like, et cetera.

And Coles knows this, and that is why they are doing this. They are banking on us being drowned out by the ableist attitudes of our culture.

So Coles, I reject your disrespect toward myself and my son, and the reinforcement from society that we are not worthy of consideration all the time, at times convenient to us — rather than being dictated to as to when you will support us.

That our needs are an inconvenience to you and others, and as a result, we are not as important as an able person.

You have stepped back into history to ugly times of ugly divide with this marketing ploy… and how sad that you know it, and you are influencing others to do the same at an unconscious level, rather than see an opportunity to truly make a difference and help the progression of acceptance of autistic people in our society.

A great conspiracy? I am not sure, but my only hope is your customers slowly become personally affected enough to wake up and call you out one day.

Georgie hopes her son will grow up in a world more inclusive of him and his special needs.

Georgie hopes her son will grow up in a world more inclusive of him and his special needs.

Photo: Georgie Elle

Georgie Elle and her son are a family living in Perth, who both live with autism.

from https://www.watoday.com.au/national/west...