As a North-East town centre aims to become more autism-friendly from this weekend, Peter Barron talks to a single mum about the importance of raising awareness of the condition.

ANY parent will appreciate that it’s not easy taking children shopping, but for single mum Emily Wright, those challenges are far more complicated.

Emily, or Em, as she’s known, has two boys – Noah, aged five, and Isaac, three. Both are severely autistic, and that means a trip to the shops must be either avoided or carefully planned.

But, at least in Darlington, progress is being made. From tomorrow, the town centre will take another step towards becoming autism-friendly with the introduction of a weekly “Quiet Hour” in shops and other public places.

It follows the success of a trial with a monthly Quiet Hour on Sundays, and news that the initiative is being extended is welcomed by Em, who lives in nearby Staindrop.

It’s so good to see a town centre like Darlington trying to do more to help.

Em is speaking in the upstairs café in Waterstones bookshop in the Cornmill Centre but, before she can stop to talk, she has to buy Noah a box of Lego figures to keep him calm. Merely having a conversation requires preparation. Throughout their brief shopping expedition, Noah, who has a sensory processing disorder, also wears head-phones to muffle the noise.

“He doesn’t filter noise like other people and any sudden noise, like a baby crying, could upset him,” explains Em.
Noah also lacks social tolerance, with a different perception of personal space, so someone brushing past him by accident could also cause him to scream or react violently.

Society sees it as naughty behaviour but we have to raise awareness and help people understand that people with autism have different needs.

The problem is even more acute with Isaac, to the extent that she wouldn’t even attempt a trip to the town centre with him, so her shopping is done on the internet instead.

“Isaac has Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and has no safety awareness so I just wouldn’t risk it,” she explains.

Em Wright and son Noah

That’s why it means so much that Darlington is taking steps to make it easier for parents like Em. From this Sunday, and every following Sunday – except Easter when the shops will be closed – the Quiet Hour will take place between 10.30am and 11.30am in a range of shops and venues.

With World Autism Awareness Week launched on Monday, it is a timely move, taken in partnership with the North East Autism Society. Businesses will turn off their music and children’s rides to help create a calmer atmosphere, which will also help elderly shoppers or people with other types of mental health issues.

Those taking part include the Cornmill and Queen Street shopping centres, Wilko, Boyes, Guru Boutique, Mercure Darlington Kings Head Hotel, Marks and Spencer, The Keys, Laura Ashley, Mangobean, Boots on Northgate, and The Dolphin Centre. Binns House of Fraser and Origins Home and Coffee Bar, which don’t open until 11am, will have a quiet half an hour.

Meanwhile, retailers are working with the North East Autism Society to promote autism training to their staff. With one in 100 people affected by autism in the North-East, it’s vital to increase understanding of the condition.

Marion Ogle, Town Centre Partnership and Events Manager, says:

The monthly Quiet Hour started in December but there has been so much support from the businesses that the decision was taken to make it weekly. We want Darlington to be an autism-friendly town and it’s pleasing to see so many businesses wanting to take part.

Kerrie Highcock, of the North East Autism Society, says:

It’s brilliant that Darlington is doing this and we hope it will help create even more awareness of the issues faced every day by families and what support there is for them.

The recently-opened Vue cinema in Darlington is also playing its part. Vue, nationally, screens an autism-friendly film on the last Sunday of each month from 10.15am, with the volume lower and the lights left on. In Darlington, the cinema’s foyer will also become part of the Quiet Hour initiative every Sunday from this weekend.

Rob Hickling, manager at the Darlington, cinema, says:

It’s obviously important to recognise the difficulties people with autism have so we’re happy to be part of extending the initiative.

Meanwhile, in Waterstones café, Noah is becoming restless, despite the distraction of his new Lego figures, so his mum has to cut short her trip to Darlington town centre.

Her parting wish is that towns will go even further in their efforts to become autism-friendly.

We receive amazing support from the North East Autism Society, and it’s really great that Darlington is coming on board. But an hour goes by very quickly once you’ve got parked. Two hours would be so much better.

If you would like to find out more about how we can support your organisation or company to become more autism friendly and support people with autism please call 0191 410 9974 or email us at [email protected]