Retailing and aspergers syndrome
Retailing and Asperger Syndrome
My experiences with shopping
Being in a supermarket, as I usually am on a weekly basis, is a challenge. You have to negotiate crowds of people, concentrate on coordination and – for some people though not me – try to avoid panicking if they have moved stuff around. This is easier said than done whilst holding a shopping bag and handling a shopping trolley. You have to squeeze your trolley past other people’s trolleys and avoid knocking down the 5 year old running free around the aisle like it was an adventure playground. The aisles of a supermarket are a less than hospitable environment to most people on the Autism Spectrum. And when the shopping is done there is the check-out. A big hurdle for somebody who has coordination problems and dyscalculia as well as the social interaction issue. I am ok with the check-out operators in terms of ‘small talk’ – I have learnt how to do this over time. But it is still a stressful experience at times getting the stuff from the basket to the conveyor belt and knowing when to chat and when not to chat. I am ok at hiding the stress and putting on a good façade. The thought of sitting down with a nice cup of tea after to calm down keeps me going. My Dad used to sit up in the café when I first started shopping alone. He reckoned he could see me most of the time. We would talk it through after to see how it went. I’m at the stage now where, after 6 years of independent living I have good experience of food shopping independently and am able to mask my feelings when stress levels rise. But occasionally they do come to the fore when somebody gets annoyed if I am a bit slow getting through the check-out. A couple of years ago when I was in a shop and feeling slightly tired having just come back from giving a presentation in another part of the country and it went a little something like this…..
The scene begins with me working out which bag to put my purchases in and someone waiting behind me decided to offer a less than helpful suggestion as to my momentary problem
Fellow shopper: say would you mind moving so some of us could go forward – he is the only there by the way aside from myself
Me: Sorry I have coordination difficulties, just give me a second to work this out
Fellow Shopper: well take your coordination difficulties somewhere else it’s not rocket science you know
My first trip to a shop on my own stems back to 2002 when I first moved to Ireland. The first shop I would have independently gone into would have been the mobile home campsite shop at the Mahareehs beach in Castlegregory, Co Kerry. We lived in a mobile home next to the beach for two months when we moved from England. So I would find myself going down on runs to the shop – a new thing for me. I am not very good with numbers – dyscalculia is the numbers version of dyslexia. I am better with money now but back then, without help, I would try to pay for everything with a 50 euro note without trying to use smaller notes and coins. When we moved back over the mountain there was the small shop in Boolteens – run by the very friendly Mrs Ladden. They were all fine with me in that shop – now closed unfortunately – and this was another good experience. Much better than another shopkeeper in a nearby village who shall remain nameless – he used to rush me with money and get me flustered. To be fair he did not know I could have done with some leeway, this is one of the hazards of having a ‘hidden’ disability. Based on these early experiences me and my Dad would have detailed conversations on what to do in shops, how to walk around in a non- eccentric way, how to do small talk when required – isn’t it a lovely day etc. It is not easy to get it right all the time as the way you operate in small shops differs from the way things work in supermarkets. Shopping independently for clothes and shoes etc brings another set of challenges which I am still getting to grips with.
But learning the basic skills do not always prepare you for the unexpected in any case….
I was over in England on a visit back to see my grandmother who is from Mayo but lives in London. As usual on these trips over, I went out exploring by myself for a bit. I first went to a supermarket and bought a tabloid newspaper then the urge came to try and get an Irish newspaper as well – you can sometimes find them in the smaller newspaper shops over there. I found a shop that looked it might stock them. At this point I had the paper I had previously purchased under my arm. I walked into this newspaper shop/ off license, looked around, saw there was no Irish newspaper, and walked out again. I stopped for a minute at the side of the shop to check everything on my personage was still there, mobile phone money etc. etc. When I looked around the owner of the shop and his son (I assume) were there looking at me stoney-faced. The owner says “ would you step back inside the shop”. I’m quite in shock at this point so I do as he asks. He points at the equally stoney-faced woman behind the counter his wife (I assume) and then he says “she’s suspicious of you” and his voice raises slightly and says “why did you take that paper” or something along those lines and I said “I didn’t” and he says “wait here, I will check the security cameras”. After what felt like ages but was only a few minutes standing there being given strange looks by the rest of the shop’s employees, the shopkeeper came back and simply said “ get a bag next time”. I breathed a sigh of relief that the law was not coming to cart me off to jail. I was still in shock when I headed up the road because I have never done anything intentionally wrong in my life and can fully claim sainthood at this time of my life. I know people years down the line admit stealing a penny sweet when they were kids – not me though, I worry if the electricity bill is not paid within two days of me getting it. That’s how much I abide by rules and so to be accused – even briefly – of theft was quite something. So much so that I have never mentioned it to anyone until now. I know a young neuro-typical adult might have behaved differently during and after the incident but many of us on the autism spectrum don’t have the skills to manage new situations. That’s why we like routines and familiar people and places.
My experiences working in the retail sector
From December 2007 to February 2009 I was a student on the retail sales course in the National Learning Network in Tralee, Co Kerry. I was based at Kerry General Hospital in the hospital shop. My duties there included assisting on the trolley runs to the patients up on the wards, cleaning and tidying in the shop store room and completing and eventually getting my City and Guilds in retail sales in October 2008. I also did work experiences at shops in Tralee and my own locality of Keel, Castlemaine. Aside from the very good experience in in Aiden Benson’s shop in Keel, I had mixed fortunes in the work experience world. While training for my qualification was a good challenge and there was the positive workplace interactions with my workmates in the shop, at the end of the day I came to realise that a full time retail job was not for me. I was stressed out a lot of the time during the day and spent too much time ruminating in the evenings about things that had gone wrong. It was nearly as stressful as being back in secondary school. So while glad of the experience in the Hospital Shop, I departed the retail life in 2009 to take up my true calling of doing presentations to raise awareness of Asperger Syndrome.