Jul 20, 2023 - Economy

"Sensory-friendly" store hours are catching on

Illustration of a shopping bag with infinity-symbol handles

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Walmart has joined the growing list of stores, theaters and attractions that offer "sensory-friendly" hours for people with autism spectrum disorder or other neurodivergent conditions.

Why it matters: Disabilities are often invisible, and by setting aside time during the business day when the lights are lower, sounds are softer and the pace is more relaxed, companies allow patrons with sensory issues to participate more fully in normal life routines.

Driving the news: In a blog post about back-to-school shopping season, Walmart said that it will create "a more inclusive shopping experience" by holding sensory-friendly hours on Saturdays in July and August from 8 a.m. to 10 a.m. in most stores, starting July 22.

  • "We are striving every day to create a culture where everyone feels they belong," the retail giant explained.

The big picture: Sensory-friendly hours were spearheaded more than a decade ago by museums and other cultural institutions that cater to children, and have been moving into the mainstream ever since.

  • The Smithsonian Institution says it was one of the first when its "Morning at the Museum" program began in 2011, offering early entry and sensory-friendly activities to people on the autism spectrum.
  • Other pioneers included the Museum of Modern Art and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.
  • AMC Theatres offers a regular schedule of sensory-friendly films in partnership with the Autism Society: "We turn the lights up and the sound down, so you can feel free to be you at these unique showings for people living with autism or other special needs."
  • Chuck E. Cheese holds "Sensory Sensitive Sundays" with early openings plus "a quieter environment, dimmed lighting, and a trained and caring staff to ensure each guest has a safe, fun-filled visit."

Of note: This year, the White House held its first-ever sensory-friendly Easter Egg Roll.

  • "Families enjoyed the shorter lines and reduced noise while they hunted for Easter eggs, and rolled eggs down the South Lawn," the Autism Society noted.

Where it stands: A growing number of websites offer directories of stores and attractions catering to people with disabilities in this way.

  • One of the more comprehensive directories is maintained by a nonprofit called Twenty-One Senses, which notes that children with developmental disabilities are too often excluded from mainstream activities.
  • Its searchable database of nearly 500 locations nationwide includes places with sensory accommodations like fidget toys, calm spaces and quiet rooms.
  • A partnership between the University of New Hampshire and Twenty-One Senses called "Sensory Scouting" is researching the best ways to support children with neurodivergent conditions.

By the numbers: 1 in 6 children in the United States have sensory processing difficulties, per a 2018 article in JAMA Pediatrics.

  • "In specific populations, the prevalence is estimated to be as high as 80% to 100% and includes children with autism spectrum disorder or who have a history of prematurity, fetal alcohol syndrome, or Down syndrome, just to name a few," the article said.

What they're saying: "Noise and light, along with social and language expectations, can induce stress for children on the spectrum, who are less able to self-regulate," Smithsonian Magazine reported.

  • "Even a flickering light could be overwhelmingly distracting to someone with autism," per the article, citing the late Elise Freed-Brown of Seton Hall University.
  • Freed-Brown wrote a seminal paper on developing museum programs for kids with autism, in which she said that "simple changes, such as providing sensory activities or holding a program when the museum is less crowded," can make a big difference in making these children feel welcome.

Case study: Austin-Bergstrom International Airport lets passengers with non-visible disabilities order a sunflower lanyard to wear around their neck while at the airport, reports Asher Price of Axios Austin.

  • The lanyard works as a discreet visual cue to indicate to airport staff and other passengers that the wearer (or someone with them) has a non-visible disability and may need a little more time, support or assistance.

What's next: Expect "sensory-friendly" hours to proliferate as stores like Walmart recognize that they're good for business and make a major difference to the people who need them.

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