Staff at dozens of Meadowhall shops set their alarms a little early this weekend, to allow families with autistic children to shop exclusively in the shopping centre.
Next, M&S, Primark and Debenhams were among the big name stores that opened their doors at 8am for the two day trial, to allow the children to familiarise themselves with the centre in a less stressful environment.
The visit, which was part of the centre’s inclusivity commitment, took place this Saturday and Sunday, and was arranged jointly between Meadowhall’s customer service team and Sparkle Sheffield, the award-winning charity set up specifically by and for families with autistic children.
Meadowhall customer experience co-ordinator, Paula Windle, said: “These are the first autism-friendly hours that Meadowhall has trialled, but we hope it will help the families feel more comfortable in their surroundings having visited when the stores and malls are much quieter than normal.
“Over recent months we have also been trialling a special sensory room in the centre where autistic visitors can go for a bit of ‘time out’ if they start to feel overwhelmed. It has special mood lighting and seating and we have been very lucky to be advised by Sparkle Sheffield, which has also worked with us on other autistic-friendly projects.”
Emma Mills took her two autistic children, seven-year-old Sam, and four-and-a-half year old Ellie, along to the centre at the weekend.
“Sam is highly anxious and is easily overwhelmed by noise, crowds and touch,” said Emma.
“It’s easy for his senses to become overloaded and when this happens he runs away, which in a crowd is extremely dangerous.
“Ellie is prone to wandering off and becoming lost, and I can’t hold her hand as she finds being touched overwhelming. Crowds are a massive trigger to both kids, which makes going out as a family difficult.
“I think the Autism hour is a great idea, we so looked foward to a day out together.”
Liesje Dusauzay, founder and CEO of Sparkle Sheffield, said: “Shopping Centres can be bewildering places for children with autism; the unfamiliar sounds, sights and crowds can be so daunting that families will avoid them, which is a shame as everyone misses out. That’s why Meadowhall’s autism-friendly hours can make such a difference. and we are delighted that so many of the major retailers have joined to support us.”
The big-hearted bosses at Meadowhall hope to hold more of these autism-friendly hours in the future.
As well as autism-friendly hours, Meadowhall has also invested in staff awareness and training – both delivered by Sparkle Sheffield - and turned its main dome blue for Autism Awareness over the same weekend, as well as hosting an additional sensory room for the weekend in a unit on The Lanes.