A mother thanks Countdown for creating a safe haven for children with SPD

When a supermarket in Marton announced it would offer special shopping sessions for adults and children with autism or sensory processing issues, families around New Zealand rejoiced. Alexandra Saunders shares why it means so much.

News hit today that Marton Countdown is offering an hour of quiet, every week from 3-4pm on Wednesdays. Designed to help those with Autism, the dimly lit, music free supermarket will be a haven for all Sensory Processing Disorder sufferers, young and old.

If you’re anything like me, you might wonder if Marton is ever such a bustling metropolis that it might seem overwhelming. But have we ever been in the brain of a sensory processing disorder sufferer?

My daughter is nearing ten and every day after school she comes home, and just like any other kid asks for screen time. Homework complete, chores finished and afternoon tea rapidly eaten, she retreats to her room. Curtains closed, dimly lit with just her bedside lamp, noise cancelling headphones ensconcing her head, she can finally unwind, with only her Chromebook to focus on – just one thing occupying her attention. Even her blankets must be just so: no wool, nothing textured. She later emerges relaxed, ready to face a family meal.

Bella hasn’t been diagnosed with Autism. If you met her in the street, she might seem a bit odd, a bit forward, if anything too friendly. Like Autism, hers is a hidden condition; she’s dyspraxic and suffers from sensory processing disorder.

She doesn’t come with me to the supermarket. I don’t have enough fingers to count the number of times I’ve abandoned shopping baskets, even whole trolleys full of groceries, at the register. I remember once visiting Pak’n’Save with my then happy, smiling preschooler, only to have the beeping of a reversing stock cart set her off in a second. The screams, the screeches, are like those of a child in pain – because some sounds, smells and sensations do trigger the same response as if she actually is in pain.

For her, the supermarket was torture.

What set off her reaction? Bright attention grabbing packaging, stacks and stacks of visual information as far as she can see, strangers everywhere starting and stopping and rushing about – and worst of all, the strange unusual noises: humming fridges, loud bangs and thumps from “the other side of the doors!” and terrifying loudspeaker interruptions, to name but a few. Anxiety rising, her unusual humming sounds (known as “stimming”) would attract well meaning shoppers, eager to help, but often resulted in tears as her inability to process facial expressions caused yet another meltdown.

And then the stares, the judgement, the rude remarks would come. They were, after all, “only trying to help”.

And that is why, more than anything, this one hour a week will be gold for all those supporting those with SPD and those living with it. While it will certainly mean more convenient shopping for all those concerned, the video of Hunter and his whanau brought a tear to my eye not because of the superficial changes – but because they were listened to.

They were heard without judgement and Countdown Marton should be commended for that. More than dimming lights and providing sensory toys, they trained their staff. They took time to learn what was needed and they went and above and beyond to accommodate that. They have made a space where for just one hour a week those living outside the bounds of regular society can be “normal”. They can shop without anxiety, without fear of those who stare, without judgement, because Countdown Marton “only wanted to help” – and they truly have.

There’s another story in the Herald today about an Autistic boy in the US who was relentlessly mocked by his teacher and teacher aid, which drove him to aggressive behaviour and bed wetting. He is 12. If there’s ever an argument for ‘special treatment’, this is it. If they lived in Marton, for one blissful hour a week that boy and his mother would be made to feel welcome. For one hour, thanks to Countdown Marton and Autism NZ’s training, they’d be treated with the kindness and respect they deserve.

No one is stopping non-Autistic people from shopping. No one will be adversely affected for not hearing the latest pop charts while they peruse the gluten free section, nor will the lower-than-normal lighting prevent you from dissecting the ingredients list on some brightly packaged foodstuff.

In fact, the only people this one hour a week will impact are those it was designed for. And I’m all for it.

Alexandra Saunders is a writer and mother of two. She runs the Little LEGO Library and girls only STEM group Lego GO Club. She is a passionate advocate for low-income families, kids with special needs and girls in STEM.

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