Back in August this year, a not-for-profit teamed up with a big brand to achieve a social good. This is not uncommon. Ours is a present where the finance sector endorses same-sex marriage, a weapons manufacturer supports a People’s Climate March and the obscenely rich guy that runs Amazon sought to “expand English learning opportunities worldwide”. These are partnerships that aim for what some might call inclusive ends.

When the organisation Aspect announced a scheme called “Quiet Hour” in partnership with Coles Supermarkets, media interest was largely niche. But, this week, the program, which seeks to reduce the intensity of light and sound that may trouble some with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), has received wide attention. Now that 68 Coles stores have agreed to dim lights and muffle Coles Radio for an hour on Tuesday mornings, at least 68 media outlets celebrated.

Nine called this moment a “huge relief”. Pedestrian TV, in which Nine holds a majority stake, said that this segregated hour was “inclusive”. The Herald Sun headed its take with “How a supermarket can change a life”, and it has been generally agreed that this will make shopping easier.

There is no doubt that some who experience atypical sensory responses, or those who assist them, will find this hour useful. Parents of neuroatypical children have been quoted in press or interviewed on TV in past days, and they are grateful for the move.

The time-out for some is welcome. But media need not welcome the claims of a press release that made this convenience case. Press did not report, as Aspect itself advises, that an early program of intervention is universally recommended for ASD. This means patiently skilling little kids up through careful exposure to challenges, like shopping. If reporters are concerned for the social inclusion of neuroatypical people, then they might want to ask more questions.

One of those might be, as suggested to me by a neuroatypical pal, “What about the people with sensory disorders who have to work in the joint?” Another might be, as posed by Nicole Rogerson, a prominent local spokesperson on ASD, “Why must we focus on good small initiatives, not the large structural changes needed to permit full participation in life?”

Another might be, “could a program of segregation like this be, in the long-term, inimical to people with ASD?”. This is a question I have posed by email to Aspect, and I look forward to their response.

Aspect is a not-for-profit largely in the business of providing services to ASD people, so it is entirely pardonable that they have been slow to manage what fast became a big story. One that Rogerson, CEO of Autism Awareness, a group that has no association with Aspect, was asked by outlets to comment upon. Few of her answers, which were not as enthusiastic as press had hoped, were reported.  

I must disclose that I know Rogerson personally, and barfed into a decorative vase while attending her wedding in 1994. Given her role in local discussion of ASD, and long history of work for both ASD treatment and advocacy organisations, my request for her comment is not inappropriate. (We cannot say this of my behaviour at the time of her vows.)

“It must be that every person with a disability can live a life that is as independent and full as possible,” she said. “And in the case of a child with ASD, this would mean helping them develop the skills they need to manage the challenges of a supermarket. Helping them feel secure that this place can be navigated, if needed, at any time.”

“I appreciate the ‘Quiet Hour’ draws attention to the problems some of our kids have, that it might provide a break for some parents. But it ultimately excludes, and is no answer to the question: will my kid be independent, even feel included, when I’m gone?”

I recall the words of a school friend, with whom I had not spoken in years. Facebook brought us to a cafe, where I learned she had two neuroatypical sons. “I want to die knowing that my beautiful boys can buy milk when they need it.”

These kids can’t wait for select supermarkets to turn down their racket for an hour. These kids can’t wait for intervention. This is now easier to acquire than it was in the time before NDIS. But, as Rogerson says, “It’s a great improvement. But it’s an improvement on zero.”

This change to 68 supermarkets has been reported in a way that eclipses the need for those broad structural changes. Those that will permit parents to die in peace, and their adult children to buy groceries.

Peter Fray

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