Shopping is stressful and overwhelming for some people with autism as they can be hypersensitive to the lights and sounds in stores.
To make shopping environments more conducive for them, a group of volunteers is working with stores to institute a "quiet hour" before or at the start of operations.
During this hour, store lights are dimmed and in-store music, the public address system and display monitors showing advertisements are switched off. Customers are also given maps of store layouts with pictures instead of words. A booth to promote awareness of autism will also be set up outside the store.
Details are being worked out as to which features would be implemented and which outlets would take part, but supermarket chain FairPrice and furniture giant Ikea have so far agreed to join the initiative.
The nine-member team behind the Quiet Hour project is led by Ms Tang Hui Yee, 28, an assistant manager at national youth volunteer programme Youth Corps Singapore (YCS). The rest of the team are made up of YCS volunteers.
They came up with the idea after reading that stores in Britain had similar initiatives and parents there said their children with autism enjoyed their shopping experiences.
British department store Asda Living in Manchester was one of the first to adopt the idea and opened an hour earlier when it staged its first quiet hour on a Saturday last May. After receiving positive feedback from shoppers, it has held quiet hours every Saturday and at least eight other shops in the same mall, Manchester Fort, have done the same.
Toys R Us branches in Britain also held quiet hours on one occasion last November, but some parents have called for it to be done more regularly.
Here, organisers plan to implement it on April 2, which is World Autism Awareness Day, before deciding whether it can be a regular event.
Ms Tang, who has taught children with autism at Eden School, told The Straits Times: "I've heard feedback that people with autism face challenges when going to crowded places. For adults, if they are afraid of going to supermarkets, they can't even get necessities on their own."
The team received $3,000 in seed funding from YCS last year and is trying to get more retailers to take part.
The Autism Resource Centre's deputy executive director Stephenie Khoo said the initiative was good but added that helping people find individual ways to cope - such as wearing sunglasses to reduce glare or earphones to reduce noise - would be a more sustainable approach.
FairPrice chief executive Seah Kian Peng said: "The initiative will promote understanding and acceptance of people with autism. It's a small but important step to build a caring and inclusive society."
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