Florence 

Meet Florence Leslie, autistic woman, writer, rock music fan, and lover of pink lipstick! Florence mainly writes critical essays on issues such as gender, autism and pop culture. Her work is available on her website here, including the article, Represent Autistic women in the media, which was featured in the Huffington Post journal. You may also recognise her from the BBC3 video,Things not to say to an autistic person.

We chatted to Florence about her shopping experiences, and why Autism Hour is important to her.

Why is Autism Hour important to you?

Small changes can make a huge impact on the lives of autistic people, like me. By widening conversation in shops and services, the Autism Hour campaign promotes acceptance and understanding. Accessibility in shops is vital, providing not only independence and basic amenities, but also a space to relax and have fun.  

What is a shopping experience like for you?

I enjoy shopping as a way to care for myself. Tuning out to a podcast and focusing on a shopping list can break a cycle of anxious thoughts. As someone who has trouble planning and organising, building shopping into a routine as time to get some headspace makes sure that I am looking after myself. I’m also a trusted friend to bring clothes shopping because I can always be relied upon to give an honest opinion! However, if I’m tired, I can get overwhelmed by so many things crammed into one space and find it hard to concentrate. I can go to the same place every day and still find new ways to get lost. 

Have you ever experienced a time when a member of staff/shop has made an effort to be understanding of autism or sensory issues? 

Not personally. As typical with women with autism spectrum disorder, I often mask my autism in public even though I may be experiencing sensory overload or trying to navigate a confusing environment. This is a habit I’m trying to break and I’m getting braver at letting people around me know how I’m really feeling and asking for patience. There have been some excellent campaigns in the last few years from the National Autistic Society raising awareness of the visceral impact of sensory overload on autistic people, such as the Too Much Information VR experience, based in a shopping mall, that emphasises how an autistic person’s heightened sensory experience can cause a meltdown. Also, as someone who works in retail, I can vouch that it’s usually the staff’s pleasure to help someone out.    

What could shops do to make the experience better for you?

Florence LeslieShops can easily increase accessibility by making sure that the aisles are wide, everything is clearly labelled and signposted, including entrances and exits and that accessible tills are unobstructed. Also, shops can listen to autistic employee’s feedback and provide autism training for both staff and customers as we are our own best advocates. This will not only make shops more accessible to the customer but also make for an inclusive and progressive employer. A great example of this is not patronising people if they struggle to add up quickly or cannot work out a discount without asking for help. Personally, I hate fluorescent lights. I have an embarrassing number of lipsticks and recently makeup concessions have taken to individually separating and backlighting their products with white fluorescent lights. It’s like staring into the sun.

If shops could accommodate Autism Hour as part of a regular schedule, then small changes could make a huge impact on the lives and confidence of people with autism and other disabilities. Just because the lights and sounds are dimmer doesn’t have to stop anyone else shopping at that time, some people without autism may even prefer the calmer environment! It’s important to understand that autistic people are often doing a lot of 'unseen' work to navigate everyday environments, like shops, that neurotypical people can take for granted. Treat everybody with the same respect and consideration as you never know who is working hard to get by. 

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The National Autistic Society’s Autism Hour, supported by The Entertainer