Gympie Target Store Manager Jo Medley at the Sensory Shopping experience on Sunday.
Gympie Target Store Manager Jo Medley at the Sensory Shopping experience on Sunday. Donna Jones

Verdict in on sensory shopping for children on the spectrum

SHORT of the runway of an international airport, it's hard to imagine a place with more sensory experiences than a busy shopping centre at Christmas time.

Christmas carols blare through the loudspeakers, Christmas trees twinkle with fairy lights and glitter with tinsel and shiny baubles. Even the bright flourescent lights can give off a harsh glare and droning hum. Plus there's the hustle and bustle of Christmas Shoppers pushing their way through the crowds to find a bargain.

For most of us, the prospect is daunting, but for the parent of a child on the autism spectrum, that amount of sensory stimulus makes the idea of shopping for Christmas untenable.


7-year-old Talia Taylor having fun in the cool down zone, put together by staff members from the Gympie Jungle at the Target sensory shopping day on Sunday.
7-year-old Talia Taylor having fun in the cool down zone, put together by staff members from the Gympie Jungle at the Target sensory shopping day on Sunday. Donna Jones

People who are not on the spectrum are able to separate and compartmentalise outside stimulus, and the brain then selectively ignores certain information it deems irrelevant at that time.

An example of this is being able to carry on a conversation with someone even through there are other conversations going on in the same room around you.

For someone on the spectrum, they hear all the voices jumbled together, leading to an understandable level of frustration, confusion and anxiety.

But this happens with all of the senses, so bright colours, flashing lights, loud noises and strong smells can all become blurred together to overwhelm the senses.

It was for this reason, Gympie Target today held a Sensory Shopping experience.

Gone were the Christmas Carols.

The lighting was subdued.

And the staff were relaxed and calm and hushed, with the atmosphere almost like that of a library.

It was all very peaceful and it was all to plan.

Jo Medley, Store Manager at Gympie Target said senior staff had volunteered to come into the store for the event from 9am-12pm to add that calm reassurance to the shopping experience.

"We've had a very quiet first hour. We've had a few families come through but we had one woman who didn't know about it and she's just gone to text all her friends to let them know.

"We've turned the music off and the lights down. There are no strong smells or perfumes or strong colours. It's very neutral," Ms Medley said.

There was also a soft toy giveaway and a major prize draw for each child who registered at the sensory shopping day, with one lucky boy or girl winning a headphone and portable DVD combo pack.

Ms Medley said the feedback she had received from customers both last year when it was run for the first time and this morning had been largely positive.

She is hoping to have more Sensory Shopping days next year around other events.

"We're looking at doing more next year ahead of Mother's Day, Father's Day and Easter as well as Christmas. The kid's can come buy mum or dad a gift and not get overloaded by the experience," she said.

This year, Michelle Boreham, Goldfields Centre manager, organised for The Gympie Jungle to provide a special Cool Down Zone, just outside the door of Target.

The area was manned by a couple of the trained staff from The Gympie Jungle.

Student teacher Anna Sauer said each of the play areas was designed to calm children on the autism spectrum, should they start to become over-stimulated.

"It's calm, definitely. When the kids are climbing up that ladder of heightened stimulus, this can bring them down a bit," she said.

The play activities which included water colour painting, playing in slime and making play-dough are designed to help the children focus on an activity that is quiet, calm and creative.

"It's not loud, not noisy. It's not too bright. There's nothing that will stimulate them further. There are gentle smells, calming smells, like lavendar and cinnamon. There nothing that's going to overwhelm them," Ms Sauer said.

As the mother of a child that is also on the spectrum, Ms Sauer understands more than most student teachers how even strong smells can provoke anxiety in children who are diagnosed with having autism spectrum disorder.

"There's so much for them to focus on, it becomes overwhelming plus social and emotional aspects can throw things off too. They often need their own space to get away for a bit," Ms Sauer said.

Ms Sauer said she has always had an interest in teaching and working with children, and has spent a number of years teaching dancing.

"It has always been my passion to be a teacher. Kid's are my thing," she said.

Parent Sarah Taylor (whose daughter Talia isn't on the spectrum but has three older brothers) said she thought the play zone is a great idea because it gives her daughter the chance to engage in some quiet, gentle play time away from her rowdy siblings.

"It's a good idea during the holidays. It makes the whole shopping process go easier," she said.

Dad Justin Elstob, who has a child on the spectrum, agreed.

"It's good. It's quiet and it's in an environment that's not full of flashing lights. It's a good idea but it should be more regular. Not a lot of parents of children on the spectrum are able to engage in shopping activities. It would be nice if it was on another day too with more during the week," he said.