An open letter to Toys R Us

Dear Toys R Us,

My son J is coming up to four years old and has autism.  Here are some key facts about J that mean shopping trips can invariably become very stressful events:

1)      J often refuses to walk when we are in large shops.  This may be because he also suffers from hypermobility which in turn can cause painful joints and a strange gait.  However, it is more likely that it is because stores such as supermarkets and Toys R Us are a sensory nightmare for J and children like him.  J experiences hyper-sensitivity in a number of his senses including sight, sound and proprioception, and when he walked into your store this afternoon he went into sensory overload.  The bright-lights, garish-colours, shelves-packed-with-toys, children-crying, lights-buzzing, trollies-squeaking, tills-ringing sights and sounds meant that he simply could not put one foot in front of the other.  Adults with autism have described a feeling of “shutting down” when they go into sensory overload.  So J refused to walk once we were within 10 paces of the store’s entrance.

2)      J refuses to sit in the child seats in trollies and will only sit within the trolley itself.  I do not know why this is.  It may be because he once had a negative experience in a child seat and now will always associate these seats with this experience due to the difficulties with social imagination that partly define autism.  It may be because he feels more secure surrounded by the “walls” of the trolley, and has a sense of reassurance in an environment that otherwise feels so overwhelming for him.  Believe me, it is very unhelpful for me to have to allow him to sit in the trolley itself.  If you have ever tried to fit a week’s worth of groceries into a trolley that already has a child in it, you will know what I mean.

3)      J equally refuses to sit in a buggy.  Again I can only speculate as to the reason, but I suspect he sees a buggy as being for a baby.  His inability to think flexibly due to his autism means that as he is not a baby, a buggy cannot possibly be for him.

4)      J has a twin sister.  This means that whatever kind of behaviour J is displaying, I can never give him my undivided attention as I always have another young child to consider.

5)      As a single mother I cannot always carry out my shopping trips without my children.  Sometimes I simply have to take them with me.  And sometimes I choose to take them with me, since sheltering J from the real world will not be helpful when he is grown up and forced to deal with the real world alone.

I appreciate that some of these factors were not immediately visible this afternoon when, as we entered your store, one of your employees stopped me to tell me my child could not sit in the trolley itself due to “health and safety reasons”.  This is why I took the time to calmly explain J’s needs, and reassure the sales assistant that J would sit quietly in the trolley.  Explaining this calmly was more of a feat than it sounds, as by this point J was screeching loudly, clapping his hands over his ears, and shouting out the names of children’s television characters as this is one of his coping mechanisms when he needs something else to focus on.  When your employee replied that it was “company policy” and that I would have to put J in the child seat, I attempted to do so.  Your employee then witnessed my struggle as I tried to force my screaming child into a seat he did not want to sit in.  He witnessed J hitting and kicking me in an attempt to break free, then when I stood J on the floor instead, he witness J clawing at my clothes and begging “carry me, carry me”.

When I turned back to your assistant I asked him what he thought I should do.  I told him that I could not carry J.  He is far too heavy for me, and I needed to push the trolley in which his sister was sitting (within the designated seat, you will be delighted to note).  I could not abandon our shopping trip as we needed a birthday present for a party we were attending later the same day.  Of course at that moment, witnessing my distress and having heard my explanation for J’s behaviour, there are a number of responses the sales assistant could have given.  Perhaps he would permit me to pass him and continue shopping provided I guaranteed to keep J seated in the back the trolley and not allow him to stand.  Perhaps he would even ask me to sign a disclaimer.  Maybe he would offer to accompany me around the store to assist a family clearly in some difficulty.  Or perhaps he would keep blandly stating “Sorry, it’s company policy.  Health and Safety”.  I think you can probably guess which option he went for.

So, pushing my daughter in the trolley with one hand, and half-carrying, half-dragging J with the other hand, I proceeded into the store.  J’s crying by this point had reached a ferocious volume, and I was continuing to be hit and kicked for the duration.  Other customers stared openly at my “naughty” son, tutting their disapproval at his behaviour and, no doubt, at my parenting.  Once we were out of your employee’s line of vision, I put J into the trolley, where he immediately calmed and sat quietly for the remainder of our visit.

I do understand the reasoning behind your “company policy” stating children may not sit in trollies except in the designated seats.  I realise that the purpose of this policy is to pre-empt an accident following which your company could be sued for large sums of money and receive any amount of bad press.  Of course I could suggest that Toys R Us are more concerned with protecting yourselves than with the wellbeing of your young customers, but I won’t.  I could launch into a bitter tirade about this being an example of “health and safety gone mad” (which it is) but I won’t.

However, I can’t help but wonder whose health and safety was being protected this afternoon when we were essentially refused entry to the store until I took J out of the trolley.  Certainly not J’s.  The absolute safest place he could have been was inside the trolley, which would have avoided a sensory meltdown that could have potentially caused him to bump into displays or fall to the ground.  Certainly not mine, as I am currently undergoing physiotherapy for a back injury aggravated by J’s insistence to be carried when we are out.  The spattering of bruises covering my legs and chest are evidence of the kicking and punching I had to endure.  And I can only assume a Health and Safety policy would need to protect mental health and wellbeing too.  I don’t think it is necessary for me to point out the difference in stress levels for both J and myself when comparing a shopping trip when he sits in a trolley to a visit when he cannot.  Was your policy protecting the Health and Safety of your employees then, or of your other customers?  Again, I don’t think so.  A child who is so distressed and overwhelmed that his behaviour is temporarily out of control clearly poses a greater risk to others than one sitting in the confines of a trolley.

I would therefore like to respectfully suggest that as well as making sure Toys R Us’ 70,000+ employees have a rigorous understanding of Health and Safety policies in order to protect yourselves from potential law suits, they also receive training in qualities such as “flexibility” and “compassion”.  I also suggest that your employees undergo autism awareness training.  Around one in one hundred children have an Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD).  This means your employees come into contact with significant numbers of autistic children each and every day.  A little understanding of what a trip to your store is like for a child with ASD (and their parents) would go a long, long way.  Circulating a copy of this letter around your 1500 stores would be an excellent start, as it will give your staff an insight into the experiences of one little boy and his mother.

Yours sincerely,

Ms L

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20 thoughts on “An open letter to Toys R Us

  1. Great letter .. would love to see the response as well when it arrives. I wonder why stores don’t do what they used to do? When I was a teenager I was a member of the British Red Cross and the biggest store in Glasgow at that time (Lewis’s) would open on a particular night for the sole benefit of those with disabilities. I was only young then and not the single mother of three children, one on the spectrum (so I absolutely identify with your nightmare trip to Toys R Us) and we (the Red Cross) were privileged to escort and assist young disabled children around a very empty and quiet department store. If cinemas can do special showings, surely stores could do something similar occasionally???

    1. Josie that’s a brilliant idea. I haven’t yet managed to organise myself to take the kids to an autism-friendly cinema screening but intend to do so soon! And we had a trip to the Museum of Childhood in London recently which has taken seriously impressive steps to cater to the needs of autistic visitors. As you say, if they can do it, why not the largest stores too – especially ones that, by their very nature, have large numbers of child visitors??

  2. To be honest, at times I would have said ‘make me!’ and just carried on. Nowadays I just say my child has a disability, and it won’t necessarely show. But with a face ‘if you say one more word, I’ll sue you’ . It usually works but if not – letters like yours are just marvellous!

  3. At times like this an “Autism Card” explaining the condition and asking for understanding might help – IF the employees were to have some Autism awareness training of course! Looking forward to hearing their response.

    1. Yes I think a card is a great idea. Maybe I should just make my own laminated ones saying what I want people to know – when they’re so lacking in understanding and knowledge, they’re not going to know I made the cards myself!!

  4. I work at a store where we have two types of carts. The bigger ones are the one that are normally seen in stores. We have no problem with children sitting in them. Its the smaller ones that we don’t allow children to sit in. Those ones have a much worse tipping hazard, but its obvious they aren’t meant to sit in. The bigger ones are meant for large amounts of items and big objects, so a child is not problem. Why the employee was so insistent, I don’t know, but I’m sorry for your experience and I hope that Toys’R’Us can amend this problem swiftly.

  5. I worked at a Toys R Us for three years and I’ve never heard of this policy. For a company who claims to support the parents of kids with autism, and charities funding autism research, the company itself is very insensitive to the needs of kids on the spectrum. I’m an ABA therapist, so I sympathize with the tantrums in public.

    1. I hadn’t realised Toys R Us were working together with an autism charity until after I’d published my letter. It’s interesting to note that a lot of the stuff on their website promoting their “autism work” seems to be geared around promoting the toys that have been identified as being suitable for children with ASD – in other words I can’t help seeing it all as a big marketing/sales exercise.

  6. You’re essentially one of those whiny mothers who has an excuse for everything, aren’t you? He can’t sit in a buggy for sensory reasons? You are the mother, you decide the rules! If he suffers from sensory overload, just don’t go into Toys’R’Us!

  7. This is such a great letter to Toys R Us.. I only had one young child to take with me shopping (when my daughter was young) and was always exhausted when I returned home. I couldn’t begin to imagine how you felt (feel). You have some great suggestions and ideas in the responses. My blog deals with children’s health and wellbeing and I plan to cover autism on it (I’m just starting it). When I get ready to write my articles on autism I would love to be able to consult with you.
    Debra @ http://www.childrenswellbeingblog.com

    1. Thanks for taking the time to leave such positive feedback Debra, and of course I would be absolutely delighted to speak to you (or write for you) about autism. I’m looking forward to checking out your link a bit later today! x

  8. Dear Lena,
    You’re essentially one of those people who judge too harshly, speak too quickly and think too little, aren’t you?
    Whiny? I don’t think I have ever met a less whiny person in my life than the one you accuse of it. The writer of this blog inspires me every day to cope with the difficulties we all face because of her grace and dignity over the last few horrific years. She has excuses by the bucketload, every single one of them genuine, but I don’t know if I have ever heard her use one of them. You may well respond to this by thinking I am just a defensive friend and you would be incredibly right. I would defend her every day against thoughtless, judgemental comments such as your own.
    You are the adult, you decide the rules! If you can’t engage some sensitivity and thought before you speak, just don’t speak at all!

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