A Department Store Full of Special Needs Kids—And No Meltdowns. What's the Secret? - Hope 103.2

A Department Store Full of Special Needs Kids—And No Meltdowns. What’s the Secret?

For kids with Sensory Processing Disorder, shopping can be a disaster. Unless it's Sensory Shopping Experience day, especially designed for their needs.

By Clare BruceTuesday 6 Dec 2016Hope BreakfastParentingReading Time: 4 minutes

Listen: Dr Michelle Curran chats to Laura & Duncan about the Sensory Shopping Experience trial day. Above: Christmas shopping isn’t so easy for families with an SPD / ASD child.

For children with Sensory Processing Disorder, a trip to the shopping centre can be an instant recipe for disaster. Especially at Christmas time.

SPD is a neurological condition that affects how the brain processes signals from the environment. It often affects children with autism spectrum disorders, and can cause a person to be either hypersensitive (overstimulated by the environment) or undersensitive. As a result, the lights, colours, sounds, hustle and bustle of a department store can be highly overwhelming for someone with SPD, sending them into a mental and emotional spin.

Imagine, then, how hard it is for the parent of an SPD child to get the Christmas shopping done.

Why Children With SPD Have Shopping Centre Meltdowns

Little boy having a tantrum

Autism specialist Dr Michelle Curran said some families with an SPD child give up on shopping centres all together.

“When we go into a shop, we target whatever we want to buy, and then we leave or choose to keep shopping,” Michelle said. “But people with SPD are actually taking on all the information from the environment, from the lights to the music to anything sparkly, so the lights of Christmas can be very very overwhelming. The noise of the music that some of us really enjoy can be just ear piercing and really hurt their ears.

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“Sometimes parents are experiencing it hours later, where the child has held it together for the shopping experience, but then two hours later that child is having a meltdown. “

The Sensory Shopping Experience

To tackle this problem, Dr Curran came up with the idea of a special shopping day catering to the specific needs of SPD kids. As a mother of three children on the autism spectrum herself, she’s highly familiar with what they need.

The ‘Sensory Shopping Experience’ was trialled on Sunday at the Target store in Gympie, Queensland, from 8am to 10am. By simply opening a littler earlier than normal, turning down the fluorescent lights to low, turning off all music, cutting out PA announcements and training staff in what to look out for, the store was able to create a safe, peaceful environment with SPD families.

Dr Michelle Curran with Gympie Target Stor manager

Above: Dr Michelle Curran with Gympie Target Stor manager preparing for the Sensory Shopping Experience. Source: Gympie Times

A Hit with SPD Families and Regular Shoppers

Speaking to Hope 103.2 after the event, Michelle deemed the day a great success—even more so than expected.

“It was really exceptional,” she said.  “It was amazing to watch.”

“There was one six-year-old boy who had never been to a shopping centre in his life…he had a great time.”

“One 11-year-old girl got to choose Christmas presents for her teachers and family by herself, instead of someone else doing her shopping for her.

“A 12-year-old girl whose mum had been trying to get her fitted for a bra for two years without success came in. With help from the store assistant and myself, she was fitted. Just by understanding her and her needs, and doing things like taking time, checking the materials, making sure it would be comfortable for her.

“There was one six-year-old boy who had never been to a shopping centre in his life and could shop without judgment. He ran like wildfire down the aisle to the toy section and had a great time.

“And there was a family there with six children who normally can’t go to the shops at all.”

Target Stores Plan to Repeat the Sensory Shopping Experience

Happy boy and mum at shopping centre

By putting human needs first, the store discovered that families and their special needs children were able to shop peacefully and effectively—without any meltdowns.

“The regional manager was there said they didn’t hear one person cry,” Michelle said. “And normally there’s children crying most days.”

The day was still successful from a business perspective, too. In fact staff and shoppers liked the idea so much that they decided to keep the lights low and the music switched off all day. Customers from the general public loved it, many people thanking the store managers.

Sensory Processing Disorder in fact occurs in 5-16% of school aged children, so many families may find themselves affected by the bright, noisy environment of shopping centres without realising why.

Target is now considering rolling out the initiative in other stores around Australia.