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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