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St. John’s area grocery stores, theatres and indoor playgrounds offering reduced sensory options

Pete Wilkins, assistant store manager at Sobeys in Paradise, stands in front of the product indicators that are found in each aisle. They are a visual aspect of the sensory-friendly hours at the grocery store.
Pete Wilkins, assistant store manager at Sobeys in Paradise, stands in front of the product indicators that are found in each aisle. They are a visual aspect of the sensory-friendly hours at the grocery store. - Jasmine Burt

Capital region becoming more sensitive to those with ASD

ST. JOHN'S, N.L. —

It only makes sense for businesses in the St. John’s area to start dealing with sensory issues somewhere.

One in every 57 children and youth between the ages of five to 17 in St. John’s are diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder, according to a 2018 report by Public Health Agency of Canada.

Newfoundland and Labrador has an overall prevalence of Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) that is a little higher than the national average.

But, besides one town in the province that can brag about being autism-friendly, that being Channel-Port Aux Basques, Newfoundland’s sensory-friendly senses have not been tingling.

A Telegram reporter surveyed what grocery stores offer sensory-friendly shopping hours.

There’s one company in particular that is offering shopping times for people who have sensory issues, which ASD can be included in.

Florence Strang and her son, Ben. The 14-year-old and his mother frequent the sensory friendly hours at Sobeys and have had a positive experience each time.
Florence Strang and her son, Ben. The 14-year-old and his mother frequent the sensory friendly hours at Sobeys and have had a positive experience each time.

“We’ve only been doing it for three or four weeks. They had some success on the mainland so its rolling out here in Newfoundland,” says Pete Wilkins, assistant store manager at Sobeys on 1621 Topsail Rd. in Paradise.

All of the Sobeys in Atlantic Canada, except for New Brunswick, where it’s soon rolling out, are offering a sensory-friendly shopping experience.

“Working here during the sensory friendly hours is like a totally difference experience,” Wilkins said. “I’ve become so accustomed to the noise level here so it’s definitely a refreshing experience. It feels like you’re in a different store.”  

Sobeys will be offering an hour and a half window where there will be changes made to the operation of the store to make it more inviting for people who have sensory issues.

“On Wednesday evening, between 6 p.m. and 7:30 p.m., we have a sensory shopping experience. We reduce our lighting in half and turn down all of our noise. We don’t use our PA system and our register beeps are turned down to the lowest point. A lot of the equipment we use around the store is shut down and we do all production that will cause loud noises before the hour and a half to make it relaxing experience."

In addition, employees do not use handheld devices, phones are turned off, carts are collected before and employees, along with the public, are asked to silence their phones.
There is also a sign in each aisle that will let the customer know what they will find in that respective aisle.

A quick survey indicates other stores are thinking about their customers who are unsettled by over-stimulation.

Bethany Roberts, store manager at Coleman’s on Newfoundland Drive, said it’s something they’ve come to their senses about.

“It’s something we’ve been looking at and recognize it will be a really great initiative to start rolling out in our stores,” Roberts said. “It’s something we take into recognition daily here though, all of the lights in our stores are LED which are already a softer light and we never have loud music playing in our stores.”

Florence Strang is the author of “Calm the F. Down: A Day in the Life of an Autism Mom”, a book written to raise understanding and acceptance for autism. She has a 14-year-old son named Ben who loves sensory Sobeys, as he calls it.

“Sobeys is his favourite place to shop,” Strang said. “However, I had to stop taking him due to meltdowns.”

Strang has been to Sobeys sensory hours twice and feels the most important thing coming from this initiative is that it is making the community more welcoming for people with sensory-processing issues.

“The time for awareness has passed and I notice that the people who work there at Sobeys seem to have a better understanding,” Strang said. “They are more likely to smile at Ben and do the transaction with him.” 

“What I find really good about this now is that when he has a meltdown, people are more likely to clue in and realize he has autism,” she said.

Besides grocery stores, there are other businesses offering times for the public who have sensory-processing issues.

Whee Indoor Playground on 61 Pippy Pl. already has lighting approved by Autism Society NL and will be offering reduced noise hours on Wednesday from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m.

Cineplex Entertainment has partnered with Autism Speaks Canada and are offering movie show times that are sensory-friendly. The Scotiabank Theatre Cineplex at the Avalon Mall on 48 Kenmount Rd. is the St. John’s hub for sensory friendly movies.

Twitter: @JasmineBurtNL

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