2019-07-18 Posted By Emily Nantel
The roots of this story start in 2007, I was a soccer crazy high school student who needed volunteer hours. When I heard that I could volunteer with the 'Blazin' Soccer Dogs', a soccer team for children of all abilities I was all in (you can check out their awesome story here: https://www.soccerdogs.ca/). I was 16, I'd barely even heard of autism. I had no idea what I was getting into or how much of an impact it would have on my life.
When I showed up on day one it was a typical first day of the season, lots of milling about trying to herd kids and parents to where they needed to be. Then I saw a little boy, who was 6 or 7, sprinting towards the gate without a parent so I took off after him and brought him back to the group. That little boy had autism and over the next few years I worked one-on-one with him each week during the soccer season.
Over time I learned more about autism spectrum disorder (ASD) from the other coaches, team organizers and his parents, but mostly we figured it out together - him and I. Learning about ASD helped me understand some of his behaviours better but at the end of the day he was just my little soccer buddy. He liked certain drills and wanted no part of others, sometimes all he wanted to do was run and other days the world was just too overwhelming for him so we'd find a quiet part of the field and just sit. He taught me so much more than I taught him and to this day I don't think of him as "a little kid with autism", I think of him as my little soccer buddy who saw the world a differently than I could and helped me see it differently too.
Fast-forward to today, I'm still crazy about soccer, still coaching (although not with the Blazin Soccer Dogs due to schedule conflicts) and working at Save-On-Foods in Kerrisdale (6455 West Blvd). My experience with the Blazin' Soccer Dogs showed me how every day things that many of us take for granted - like signing up for a soccer team or even buying groceries - can be much more challenging for individuals and families with ASD. Therefore, a few months ago I approached my manger about the possibility of offering "sensory friendly shopping hours" at the store. To my delight he was completely onboard with the idea and the conversation immediately went from, "Should we do this?" to "How do we do this really well?"
To try and find that answer I reached out to some of my contacts from Blazin' Soccer Dogs who put me in touch with both Autism BC and the Down Syndrome Resource Foundation. They provided us with a list of actions we could take that would make for a more welcoming environment for people with ASD or other sensory processing conditions and "sensory friendly shopping hours" at Kerrisdale Save-On-Foods were born!
Ahead of our first set of sensory friendly hours Autism BC came in and held an education session about ASD for staff and, along with the store manager, spoke to Global News about the initiative (https://globalnews.ca/news/5414672/sensory-friendly-shopping-vancouver/).
So how are "sensory friendly hours" different from regular shopping hours? For 2 hours (6-8pm) every second Thursday (July 18th, Aug. 1st etc) we have the lights dimmed, no music playing, the self-checkouts are muted, we don't use the PA system and we don't do cart collections.
The reaction has been overwhelmingly positive, both staff and customers are finding it a very calm environment and are happy to hear that Save-On-Foods is finding ways to be inclusive. We are the first grocery store in Vancouver and the first Save-On-Foods to offer sensory friendly hours but we're hoping that other stores will follow suit (a Thrifty Foods and a Safeway outside of Vancouver have been holding sensory friendly shopping hours for a while now). We will hold our third "sensory friendly hours" this Thursday (July 18th) and we are looking to keep improving them until they are as close to perfect as we can get them.
If you or anyone you know is looking for a calm, inclusive grocery shopping experience then please come to Kerrisdale Save-On-Foods (6455 West Blvd) from 6-8pm this Thursday (July 18th) and every second Thursday after that. We'd love to have you and hear what you think!