Stress-free shopping for kids with autism

FromSt. Catherines Standard

By Karena Walter
15th Dec 2012

Shopping is not eight-year-old Jack Perrin’s favourite thing to do, to say the least.

There are too many people in the mall and it’s loud.

“Way louder than here,” he said at Autism Ontario’s Niagara chapter Saturday. “More than 50 billion times louder than here.”

Jack got all of his Christmas shopping done and wrapped Saturday in the comfort of the Page St. offices. The holiday shopping event saw 67 children and youth diagnosed with autism choose presents for 325 family members and pets.

Jack’s mother Maria Hiebert said the Autism Ontario event made him feel good about himself and gave him some one-on-one attention he wouldn’t get in a store.

Many autistic children feel overwhelmed in malls because of the noise, smells, lights and crowds. “We want it to be a safe and calm environment compared to a mall,” said L.B. Brown, family support coordinator for the Niagara chapter.

“It’s something all of the kids look forward to year after year.”

Children were booked into half hour time slots in which they did shopping with a volunteer elf. Armed with a list of names of people to buy for, they chose gifts from tables of new donated items in categories for women, men, boys, girls and pets. It was a parent-free zone, so the gifts will be surprises on Christmas morning.

It was the fifth year for the event, with children aged three years to 18 participating. In the first year, 20 children shopped, but Brown said the event has grown so much they can’t accommodate everyone.

“An event like this creates an atmosphere for the kids so they can be themselves,” said Terra Lynn Idzenga, whose sons Dylan, 10, and Brayden, 7, are both diagnosed with autism. Their middle brother Christopher accompanied them to the event, which included hot chocolate and treats for siblings.

Idzenga said the malls are extremely difficult for autistic children at this time of year. But at the shopping event, if the children get upset, they can be, and everyone around them understands.

“They know they’re accepted here,” she said.

The event is also a nice change for parents.

Cindy Grohnwald said her six-year-old daughter Charlie, who was diagnosed last December, gets overwhelmed in the mall and may bolt or hide. As a result, Grohnwald gets a lot of unsolicited parenting advice from strangers.

“All of the parents here are aware and know their children are ASD (autistic spectrum disorder) children.”