It’s amazing what can happen in an hour. On the 6th November, Toys R Us stores across the world opened an hour early to welcome kids with autism.
Kids with the condition aren’t able to do what most kids take for granted: run around a toyshop like...well, a kid in a toyshop! This is because the bright lights, noises, tannoy announcements etc. are very upsetting for kids with autism. It can be scary, confusing and intimidating. On Sunday, though, this all changed. I went to the Watford store to check it out for myself.
Queueing up outside the door
I didn’t know what to expect. Would anyone would turn up? Did parents of autistic children even know about this event? I was pleasantly surprised to see parents and kids lining up outside waiting to get in.
Once inside, the first thing I noticed was the dimmed lighting. Staff confirmed that one third of the overhead lights were switched off, as well as the display lighting. Kids on the autistic spectrum are often very upset by artificial lighting, making a normal trip to a shop unbearable. As it was, the kids were entirely stress-free and relaxed.
The second observation I made was the number of staff. The store had clearly made an effort to put on extra staff to deal with young inquisitive minds, and no doubt parents looking for advice on the best toys. Kids on the autism spectrum can be demanding with their questions and management were obviously sensitive to this.
Speaking to the manager, I was pleased to find out the staff had been advised not to approach the children but wait until approached, which is important. Many children with autism need their personal space and become disturbed if it is invaded. The manager confirmed that the staff had been trained to respect this.
Unique opportunity to play
You will see from the photos that kids were riding bikes around the store. Impaired depth perception makes thing like riding a bike, throwing and catching difficult. This means that kids can’t always do things other kids can do, so it was great to see them in an environment where they are safe and not restricted.
I spoke to the store manager in depth about the event and he explained that this was happening in all stores up and down the country. He said turnout varied from location to location, but overall the event was very popular. He said he and other store managers received specialist guidance on how to cater to the kids. He showed me a special printed guide from the National Autistic Society. It details the possible triggers, so that staff know what to expect. It also shows which toys are likely to be popular with the children so staff can direct parents to the best toys.
My verdict: a great event that encourage inclusiveness
It is a great opportunity for kids on the autistic spectrum to play with toys and see what they like, with the date being no coincidence – it is specifically organised to see what kind of toys kids would like for Christmas. This is not something they normally get to do, and I applaud that. No doubt the 700,000 people in the UK with autism appreciate it too. This is the 4th year in a row that Toys R Us have run this session for kids with autism, and it’s great to see such commitment to expanding positive childhood experiences to all children.
Toys R Us is leading by example and effecting positive change – let’s hope this is the start of a wider trend. It is reassuring that Toy R Us have equipped themselves with knowledge about the condition and the practical ways to accommodate it.
The whole experience left me genuinely impressed.
As I mentioned earlier, parents and kids were lining up outside to get in before the doors opened. There is serious demand for these kind of events and plenty of parents of autistic kids willing to part with their cash. Businesses take note!
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