For kids with autism, quiet holiday time at Toys R Us

Last Updated Nov 1, 2016 7:05 AM EDT

You might not consider a Toys R Us store as an oasis of calm for kids. But the giant toy retailer is looking for ways to make shopping more comfortable for children with autism, who can become anxious when their senses become overwhelmed by loud noises and bright lights. 

No details are set yet. “We’re working on a plan to test these types of opportunities on a local level -- pairing our stores with local organizations to create an event for kids with special needs and their families,” said Candace Disler, a spokeswoman for the Wayne, New Jersey-based company. “We’ll also assess opportunities to scale it nationally.” 

Autism Speaks, one of the leading nonprofits that focuses on the condition that affects one out of 81 children, wasn’t aware of other national retailers doing anything similar, according to Lisa Goring, the organization’s executive vice president for programs and services. The group would be happy to work with Toys R Us if asked.

The company’s U.K. operation has held “quiet hours” for children with autism since 2014. During such an event on Nov. 6, lights will be dimmed and the holiday music will be turned off. The stores will also offer a “quiet area” in case a child needs to calm down and provide autism-friendly signage. 

For reasons that scientists don’t understand, people with autism can have heightened senses of hearing or smell, making it difficult from them to process these senses. Occasionally, they wind up throwing tantrums or exhibiting other types of behaviors, such as arm-flapping, which can seem peculiar to those not familiar with the condition.

“I think it’s great what Toys R Us is doing,” said Angela Blanchet of Long Island, New York, whose 11-year-old son Benjamin has autism. “The kids are getting to be more and more in numbers.”

As awareness of autism has increased in recent years, businesses have taken steps to accommodate people affected by the condition.

The Holyoke Mall in Ingleside in Massachusetts, for instance, is planning to ask its tenants to turn their holiday music off or down on Dec. 18 to accommodate children with autism, as it has done for the past several years, according to spokeswoman Lisa Wray. A representative from a local fire company will be on hand so that he can silence a false alarm immediately to avoid spooking the event’s special guests. 

Airline JetBlue (JBLUhosts a program for children with autism so they can become familiar with the experience of flying before they take a trip. Mall operator Simon Property Group (SPG) provides access to specially trained “Caring Santas” who are trained to deal with children having special needs. AMC Theaters offers “Sensory Friendly Movies” where the lights are turned up and the sound is lowered.  

Parents of children with autism continue to have problems with people who don’t understand the condition.

“Unfortunately, still I feel like there’s a high level of intolerance,“ said Blanchet, whose has faced awkward questions when Benjamin was having behavioral issues.

A small toy store in her community, whose name she didn’t disclose, told Blanchet it didn’t want to have children with autism during normal business hours because “they don’t want to turn off their customers.” The owner did offer to open her store earlier or allow for Blanchet to shop after-hours, an idea she found unacceptable given the store-owner’s reasoning for excluding Benjamin in the first place.

This story has been updated to clarify that Toys R Us’s current planning for the U.S.

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