The holiday shopping season can be overwhelming for customers of any age – even adults – but spending time in crowded stores full of unexpected stimuli can be especially challenging for neurodiverse children.
Strings of holiday lights and animatronic toy displays, bustling Santa photo stations, and ever-changing layouts that interrupt a family’s usual routine can all work to set off adverse reactions. Amanda E. Bennett, MD, MPH, Clinical Chair of the Autism Integrated Care Program at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, and Brandon Miller, diversity chair and client sales executive at Clarkston Consulting, share insights on ways you can help make your shop a comfortable, go-to spot for families with neurodiverse children.
Can you briefly describe neurodiversity?
Amanda Bennett: Neurodiversity recognizes individuals may interact with and respond to the world around them in different ways. They may be more or less sensitive to aspects of the environment, such as sounds, lights, temperatures, odors, or textures. They may also process information differently.
Brandon Miller: Neurodiversity is not a new concept, but it’s one that’s talked about more frequently now. It focuses on how individuals think, process, and navigate the world. It has started to expand into more personal challenges in this space – transitioning from its original focus on people who are on the autism spectrum to now including ADHD, dyslexia, Tourette syndrome, PTSD, and other neurological challenges or differences.
What challenges are there for retailers who want to be more inclusive toward neurodiverse customers?
AB: Common challenges for neurodiverse families when they enter retail environments can include safety, interests and aversions, changes in routine, sensitivity, and waiting.
Children are more likely to wander away from a caregiver or elope from the building if they are over/under-stimulated, distracted by a strong interest, struggling to communicate their needs, or overwhelmed by too many people around them.
Children with neurodiversity may be extremely interested or extremely fearful of items the rest of us might not pay much attention to.
Changes in Routine
Many neurodiverse individuals are most successful when they can follow a somewhat predictable routine. Just entering a retail environment may be a change in routine that can be exacerbated if the business is extra busy, extra noisy, extra warm, etc.
It takes education at the retailer’s end to understand these concepts, and you need to think about the right way to implement changes in stores or through the retail experience.
—Brandon Miller, diversity chair and client sales executive, Clarkston Consulting
Many of my patients have noise sensitivity and are bothered by hand dryers, automatic toilets, security alarms, and overhead speakers.
Like with any child, waiting in a long line can be difficult. However, children who are neurodiverse may struggle with entertaining themselves as easily as others.
BM: When you think about traditional retail, digital retail, or direct-to-consumer experiences, you’re really thinking, “How am I communicating with my customer, and how is my customer receiving the messages I’m establishing in my retail experience?” If you have a brick-and-mortar store, what are the sights, lighting, and imagery, and how are consumers, especially those who are neurodivergent, reacting to those? Thinking about smells, thinking about sounds, thinking about the tactical experience [can help].
Can you suggest some changes retailers can make to their space to make it more inclusive to neurodiverse children?
BM: I like to focus on the senses. For example, consider the lighting. Do we have flashing lights or a lot of moving animations, which are often in stores where families shop? How can I keep a consistent level of lighting or design a path through the floor plan that those who are neurodivergent can take to avoid these areas?
If there might be adverse reactions or if children just need an area to chill out, creating a space is a great opportunity. This would be a separate area that’s still close to other family members who are shopping, where you can provide items that can give those children a level of comfort and security, away from some of the stimuli in the rest of the store, with beanbags, puzzles, books, and headphones so they can listen to something.
I’ve also seen kits that retailers can provide, which can include fidget spinners or something else tactile to support individuals that need that calming sensation. It could have sunglasses if your store is bright or has flashing lights. There’s also an opportunity for stores to leverage their branding on these objects.
How can retailers improve their overall business plan to better serve neurodivergent customers?
AB: I often hear from families that those daily trips into the community for basic needs, like groceries or clothing, can be incredibly challenging for their neurodiverse child. Offering consumers a range of options for when and how they access a business’ services gives families the option to find what will work best for them.
I especially like the idea of offering a store map to help families locate spaces their child might need during a shopping visit, particularly if the business is able to successfully offer both calming and stimulating opportunities in their space.
BM: One of the lessons learned from COVID-19 is that we saw a lot of retailers starting to make special hours for older populations or for individuals with pre-existing conditions. Retailers that might have neurodiverse visitors can create specific hours where you might have reduced lighting or you might not have the animations – then invite families to come during those times when you’ve reduced some of the stimuli.
Also, you can leverage technology to help your customers best use the space and have that customized experience. We’ve seen an increase in retailers allowing customers to map out their experience at the store, select which items they need, and know exactly where everything is. Being able to lay out a path of where certain stimuli are can also help. If I go to the left, there’s Santa; at the back of the store, there’s an animatronic; in the back right, there’s flashing lighting. That gives some autonomy to families to chart their own path where they might be able to avoid some of those things.
Should retailers provide additional training for their staff?
AB: Many parents worry their child’s differences in speech, behavior, or response to the world around them may cause strangers to think the child is misbehaving. My view is we should assume neurodiversity in everyone we meet and offer assistance when a person has behaviors that appear “different.” The more understanding and patient we can be with each other in the community, the more everyone will benefit – neurotypical and neurodiverse.
BM: I think it’s important, especially going into the holiday season, for your store associates to be able to accommodate your guests, be prepared to answer their questions, and know the things that you’re doing for neurodivergent children. That education is going to better the customer experience in the store and increase the level of awareness and education within your company.
Shopping during the holidays can be even more overstimulating than shopping during the rest of the year. Do you have specific seasonal suggestions for retailers?
BM: When I’m waiting hours in line for a picture with Santa, there’s “Jingle Bells” blasting, Christmas lights flickering, and elves keep walking up to me in line and smiling and waving – that’s overwhelming. These parts of the holiday retail experience can be very overpowering for children in general, especially for neurodivergent children. But I’ve seen some retailers introduce experiences that are very mindful of neurodiverse needs – for example, you can take a picture with Santa but you don’t have to sit on his lap, or you can take a picture with a Santa figure. I would challenge retailers to think about what they normally do and how this can be adapted to be more inclusive for these children.
A Parent’s Story
Colleen Szarek’s six-year-old son Mac was diagnosed with autism just before he turned two. After being nonverbal for years, Mac is now an emerging speaker. Though he isn’t usually bothered by sensory stimuli such as flashing lights or loud sounds, he thrives on routine. Adjusting to even relatively small changes, such as a favorite candy no longer being available in the checkout line, can be difficult for him.
“A neurotypical child can get over it – they’re going to have their tantrum and leave,” Szarek says. “With a child with autism, it could go on for three hours.”
Szarek says she bases roughly 80% of her choice on where to shop on how well the store can accommodate Mac. Is the path through the store the same each time? Is there Wi-Fi so he can use a favorite app to stay calm? Despite this, she says nearly half of their shopping trips end early.
Responsive staff can make or break a shopping experience. An employee who is willing to open a new line so a parent can make a quick exit, speaks respectfully to nonverbal children who may not be able to respond, and follows the parent’s lead when a child is upset, can create a welcoming atmosphere – and a repeat customer.
“Autism is not physically noticeable, and I think that’s what makes it so hard on people outside of that world,” says Szarek. “If workers just help the parent, trust me, it would make a huge difference.”