It’s been 16 months since Cheshire Oaks hosted their first ever Autism Friendly Shopping evening in February 2016. McArthur Glen Cheshire Oaks Designer Outlet partnered with Autism Together to become one of their recognised Autism Champions.
Staff were trained in autism awareness by Autism Together’s award winning Training and Advisory Service in relation to difficulties people with autism might face, sensory overload and strategies that might help people to feel more accepted and comfortable when accessing the shops.
After receiving our autism awareness training and signing the autism charter, Cheshire Oaks have adapted their services slightly once a month to help accommodate people with autism and their families. On arrival at the Outlet Village, families can head directly to the visitor information centre to pick up a handheld map which is a great tool to use as now and next visual structure, this map also outlines all the locations of the quiet spaces available if someone needs a break away from their shopping. Autism alert cards are available for people to take and can be used in shops to help identify that someone in their group has autism, if there is a need for help or understanding of certain situations.
In the shops themselves lights will be dimmed, the volume of background music will be turned down low and tannoy announcements will be kept to a minimum. A Tuesday night once a month was chosen specifically for the autism friendly shopping, as this is their quietest night of the shopping week.
A few families have got in touch with us directly to tell us exactly why they love attending these sessions:
Melanie and her son Thomas
“We don’t go to Cheshire Oaks with Thomas very often, because of the number of visitors it attracts; however, the autism friendly night is fabulous! Thomas is free to be himself, the staff there are all fantastic. We only normally go and do 2 things; the first visiting Costa Coffee for Thomas’ lukewarm hot chocolate in 2 separate cups and marshmellows on the side. There is a lovely girl working there who recently spotted us coming and remembered Thomas’ unique order which made him feel really special. Then we head to the play area and have 15 minutes of fun. Thomas adores the autism nights, as it’s so quiet and uncrowded and the music is just right.
As a mother of a child with ASD, I think it is great more places are doing autism friendly sessions, life can be very difficult when you have a child with special needs and just to be able to go somewhere and do ‘normal’ things and not be judged or stared at makes the world of difference; a little understanding goes a long way for an autism family, its priceless.”
Samantha Hardwick Mum to Matthew and Daniel
“My twin sons Matthew and Daniel (aged 20) are both autistic; they find it extremely difficult to face any social situations. We have previously visited Cheshire Oaks autism friendly events and only managed to walk around and not actually shop, but this in itself is getting them out and used to the environment.
However, on a recent autism friendly shopping event it proved to be a big success for both my sons. Our aim was to purchase shoes, summer jackets, trousers and a top each; we didn’t quite manage all of this, but that has not dampened our success.
We started off just walking around to ease the boys both into it, the atmosphere was relaxed and the music was low. Sketchers was our first shop and this quickly became too much for them both, we retreated outside the shop and sat on a bench. The staff however were fantastic and brought out a pair of shoes one of the boys had been looking at for him to try on outside, which was brilliant and ended in my son purchasing the shoes!
Our next stop was Superdry, where the boys both chose summer jackets and a top each, the changing area here was perfect and the staff were very helpful.
We then headed to Yo Sushi, my sons have wanted to go here for a very long time, but never managed it. From entering the staff were amazing, they allowed the boys to drink their own drinks and made them feel relaxed and safe; this was the first time my boys have managed to finish a meal without leaving!
Our last shop was of course Lindt chocolate, the lady here was simply amazing; we have never managed to enter this shop before, but due to staff acceptance and understanding this time the lads both chose lots of chocolates to take home.
This may not seem like a lot of shops, but for my lads this is a huge achievement and I can’t wait to take them back to the next event.”
CEO of Autism Together, Robin Bush, said “shopping with a family member who is on the autism spectrum can be a challenging experience. Parents and carers often tell us how frustrating or embarrassing it is to be tutted at by onlookers or ignored by shop staff when their loved one is feeling anxious or having a meltdown. A bit of understanding goes a very long way and we hope people will begin to understand that most people with autism just want to live their lives and do typical things like everyone else.
It’s been great having the autism friendly shopping nights and working in partnership with the team at Cheshire Oaks, spreading autism awareness and acceptance. This is a partnership I am sure will only grow and hopefully other retail outlets will follow suit.”
The upcoming dates for the Autism Friendly shopping nights at Cheshire Oaks are;