The mere thought of shopping with child in tow fills many a parent’s heart with dread – but when the child has autism, it can be a particularly challenging outing.
Fiona Sharkie, chief executive of Amaze, Victoria’s peak body for autism spectrum disorder, says parents of children with autism can be reluctant to brave shopping centres.
“It can be very difficult for parents with children on the spectrum to be able to come out to public places, such as shopping centres, for fear of their child having a ‘meltdown’ due to too much sensory stimulation,” she says. “And not just children – adolescents and adults with ASD are often overwhelmed by the sensory experience that is shopping.”
But now, a Victorian shopping centre has opened Australia’s first “quiet room” for people with autism. The room at Northland, in Melbourne’s northern suburbs, was introduced as a sensory soothing space for people with autism to go when feeling overwhelmed. The quiet room has bean bags and soothing items to help reduce overstimulation. It was built by local volunteers and businesses in consultation with a committee, most of whom have been personally touched by autism.
It opened in the same week that the Victorian Opera launched “relaxed performances” of Hansel and Gretel – with lights on, lower sound levels and capped audience numbers – for children with Down syndrome and autism spectrum disorder. Performers will introduce themselves at the start of the show and won’t wear make-up. Children will be able to move around the theatre or use a “chill-out” space outside the auditorium, reports The Age.
One in up to every 110 people is affected by autism spectrum disorder, equating to about 250,000 Australians. Traits of the developmental condition include impaired communication and social interaction and restricted, repetitive patterns of behaviour, interests or activities.
Northland manager Michael Bickers says the centre wants to help people with autism and their carers to feel more comfortable in public spaces and engage more with their community. He says the centre also wants to raise awareness of ASD by promoting local support services and programs.