I had run out of the coffee pods that fitted my machine and my local supermarket seems to have stopped selling them so since I was in town picking up a friend at the railway station, I decided to look in a rival store. So I went into the shop for two things, my Saturday paper and some coffee pods. Now I’m experienced enough to know that despite having a list of items to buy, I will nearly always come out of the supermarket with more than I intended so I took a large bag to carry out any extras that caught my eye.

The first thing I noticed though were that the lights seemed very dim at the shop entrance. I guess the bulbs had blown. Then I look through the entrance and into the store. It seemed rather dim inside too. “Strange”, I thought. A few more paces through the vegetable section and something clicked in my mind. The store was having its quiet hour designed to make it easier for the sensory sensitive to do their shopping. I have been meaning to try this “autistic friendly” shopping for a while but the timing was usually wrong for me. Aside from the lighting what else did I notice? Well noise levels were definitely down. In the distance I could hear chatter in the café at the edge of the store, presumably people having their breakfast out. I wondered if they knew about the store’s policy?

Around me there were still lots of people shopping. The atmosphere seemed to encourage people to talk at a low volume or not at all, certainly I found that I felt awkward when I spoke to my friend. Was I speaking quietly because I knew about the policy or because nobody else was talking? I am not sure. There was certainly no music being played or tannoy announcements. It was far from quiet though. Yes, general noise levels were down but this only highlighted the buzz of the refrigeration units which seem more irritating to me.

My search for coffee pods proved fruitless, though I did pick up a dozen free-ranged locally laid eggs, four croissants, two rosemary and beetroot rolls and some mince pies (see what I mean regarding the extra bits). Then I went in search for the newspaper. The weren’t very well displayed but I found the one I wanted then noticed that the supplement was missing. At first I wondered if the format had changed but then noticed the list of extras inside on the front of the main paper and these were definitely not inside. Such extras include the TV guide and food magazine which are important to my family.

I decided I needed to queue up at the newspaper desk to see if they knew anything about the suppliments. The woman selling lottery tickets didn’t but suggested I tried the customer service desk. “*sigh* okay I can do this”, I thought. The customer service rep told me that the paper’s supplements had not been delivered today. I thanked her and put my newspaper back. I wanted to point out that they could put a sign up letting people know this rather than making people ask for the information. This is supposed to be an autistic friendly hour after all. I wanted to say it but I didn’t because, you know, I find that awkward and I felt I was doing well asking questions from two strangers anyway.

Having had enough of interacting with people I didn’t know, I decided to use the self-service pay desks and leave with what I had accumulated. I scanned an egg box first and put it on the scale. “How many items?” the machine asked me. I typed one and the price came up as 22pence. This made no sense to me. I distinctly remember the eggs being priced £1 for a box. Even if the pricing was per egg, it added up to £1.52 for a box of six so that couldn’t be right. Anyway, I have never been charged per egg before. Perhaps the eggs were being sold off cheap. Surely that must be it. But my anxiety levels were rising. I was not sure what to do and started rubbing my head to keep calm. I scanned the second box of eggs. The same result. I carried on. I needed to get this over with.

Next I picked up my mixed bag of croissant and rolls. The bakery section had a pick and mix of six items for £1.50 (or something like that). But the touch screen only showed croissants. I touched the picture and the till asked me for an item count. I was going to put in six but I thought this would throw the stock-taking out so I typed four instead. The machine didn’t accept that so I put one in. This was fine but it wanted me to then put the item on the weighing scales. Not thinking straight I put all six over. Then tried to enter another croissant. Fine by the machine wanted more weight to be added. I tried pressing down on the scale to no success. I thought I should take the items out of the bag and do one at a time but the machine complained when I lifted the bag of six off.

I think I must have frozen a bit at this point. Certainly my agitation levels were rising rapidly. I couldn’t figure out what to do. Thankfully an assistant noticed some difficulty and asked if she could help. I must have explained enough since she corrected the till issues with multiple taps and an authorisation card, then pointed out that it is much easier to select the pick ‘n’ mix item on the menu which was under the bakery tab. It struck me as strange that this possibility wasn’t on the front page of the menu under common items but I guess single croissants are more popular than a bag of six. I think that I would have arranged the menus different but perhaps that is just wishful thinking on my part. Thankfully I remembered to pay before leaving a quickly as possible.

Looking back I can see that my seemingly simple search for a newspaper and coffee was anything but. My experience of autistic friendly shopping was not positive but I think I was unlucky. Newspapers are normally delivered with supplements, and if that had been the case then I wouldn’t have needed to build myself up to ask where the missing bits were. The eggs seemed like an unusual addition to the store so perhaps the pricing hadn’t been sorted out properly yet. The pick ‘n’ mix bag issues may have simply be because my brain was a bit frazzled and I was unused to using this particular self-service till.

This was all built on top of the changes in the store. I was immediately on edge because of the store changes to the lighting and sound levels. There seemed to be more people shopping than I am used to and the lack of background noise meant that I was more aware of the refrigeration units noise which felt more irritating to me. It would seem that I didn’t handle the store changes very well. My unconscious environmental expectations were wrong and I walked into a situation that felt uncomfortable from the start. The complications of the shopping just added to that.

I applaud the supermarket chain for trying to make shopping easier for those that find the standard noise and light levels difficult to deal with. I remember finding out about the initiative but reading about something and experiencing it is rather different. For me, I think more could have been done to warn the shoppers of what was going to before entering the shop. Maybe it wouldn’t have made any difference but prominent signs up indicating a change in environment and the reasons for those changes would have been helpful before I stepped through the door. I think it would have also been good to place reminders around the store too.

I think the newspaper supplement issue could also have been highlighted by a sign explaining the problem where the items were picked up. Perhaps for some people the lack of extras is a positive thing but personally, I wouldn’t have picked the paper up in the first place if I knew the supplements were missing. I don’t know how many unusual events happen each day for standard fare, but I think any changes could be highlighted by signs. Afterall, any special offers on price is usually prominent, so why not highlight other changes too?

Something that isn’t addressed is how bewildering the range of items is for some people. I know some of my friends find five plus brands of tinned tomatoes overwhelming for instance. How do you choose? Does price indicate quality? I know that it is standard nowadays for “people” to want variety and choice but I wonder how much of this is marketing? Perhaps the majority of the population want to be different and choose a fancier labelled tin but there are some of us that just want something that is reasonably priced for reasonable quality. I don’t need to pay extra because “I’m worth it”, my self-esteem isn’t boosted in that way.