Our shopping centres, offices, supermarkets, and stores are decked out with lights, trees, and festive displays. The Christmas songs are playing and there are an array of delicious aromas tempting us to buy. The shops are bustling with life and if you are lucky, you might even be offered a mince pie!
Christmas is a glorious time of year for many, however, for those who like routine and familiarity, it can be confusing and overwhelming.
Help Customers Avoid Overstimulation
People with autism can be highly sensitive to sensory overload. In an environment with lots going on, they can find it difficult to filter information. As an example, background noises that others may hardly register can be as loud as a conversation with the person next to them.
Imagine trying to conduct a phone call or fill in a form with a baby crying, the television blaring, a car alarm going off outside, the lights flicking on and off and the dinner bubbling over on the hob. You can imagine that this would be highly stressful. The impulse would be to get out of there. This gives us an understanding of the sensory overload that some feel when visiting businesses and organisations during December.
One solution that has been introduced by several supermarkets is to have a dedicated quieter hour. During this time, the lights are dimmed, background music is switched off and other sounds are lowered. All customers are asked to keep noise to a minimum. This allows people with sensitivity to sensory stimulation to have a more relaxed experience.
Quieter Hours are offered in the following supermarkets throughout the year:
· Morrison – Saturday 9-10am
· Tesco – Wednesday & Saturday 9-10am
· Asda – Monday to Thursday 2-3pm
This concept is not difficult to introduce, and it offers people choice. Any customer is welcome during the quieter hour, so it isn’t restricting others’ access to goods or services. Many staff and customers without autism also enjoy the calmer, quieter environment. The occasional quieter hour doesn’t dampen the Christmas spirit and it could be the best gift your organisation offers others.
Keep Customers Informed of Changes to Services
Christmas also disrupts the usual way of doing things for people who need a routine to cope. This includes customers with dementia. For them, routine is grounding, provides reassuring familiarity and makes it easier to make associations.
If someone is used to coming into town on a Tuesday; visiting the bank and the pharmacy, before catching a bus home, this is their routine. They know what to do, where to go to pick up the bits they need and which bus stop to wait at.
Then Christmas comes and the routine is disrupted. Items are moved on the shelf and shop opening times and bus timetables change. The capacity for people with dementia and other learning needs to adapt is limited. The situation can rapidly escalate into confusion and frustration.
If you know of customers who arrive at the same time each week and make the same requests, you know they are likely to be thrown by change. Your Christmas opening times might be on the door, but not all customers will notice. Tell vulnerable customers in person and ideally write the information down for them to take away. You may need to repeat this on several occasions to aid their understanding.
I like the National Railways information regarding service disruption over Christmas. It details changes to services and provides alternative options for those needing to travel. Are the alternatives for your customers being well communicated?
The additional shelves of stock or that Christmas tree by the door may look delightful, but do they make it a challenge to move around your premises? Take a moment to think of the available space and manoeuvrability needed by parents with pushchairs, customers in wheelchairs and those with visual impairments.
It is important to ensure everyone can get what they need without additional barriers, so a touch of festive cheer must be balanced with practical considerations.
Remote accessibility should also be planned. For vital services, can you signpost customers to out of hours support, emergency contacts or related services during Christmas closures? Where can people be directed if they face a major issue whilst your team are out of the office?
By considering the needs of vulnerable customers over the festive period, the spirit of goodwill can carry into the New Year.