Virtual reality brings autism awareness to UK shoppers

Virtual reality has been used for the first time to increase the general public’s understanding of autism, with shoppers at intu Trafford Centre in Manchester donning headsets to experience a shopping centre visit from the perspective of an autistic child.

Recreating the sights and sounds of a shopping centre as experienced by someone on the autism spectrum, it is all part of work by the National Autistic Society and shopping centre owner intu to bring better support and awareness for autistic shoppers and their families.

The pioneering initiative which launched at intu Trafford Centre on Thursday (9th June) and will tour the UK at intu’s 15 shopping centres this summer uses virtual reality to take people inside the National Autistic Society’s viral film ‘Can you make it to the end?’ as it follows an autistic boy experiencing sensory overload on a shopping trip.

The launch marks intu Trafford Centre being recognised as the country’s first autism friendly shopping centre by the National Autistic Society’s new Autism Friendly Award. A range of supportive measures for autistic people including autism-friendly shopping centre guides, specially-designed alert cards and frontline staff training will be rolled out to all intu centres including intu Metrocentre and intu Lakeside in the next two years.

Alexander Nicoll, corporate responsibility director at intu said: “With two thirds of the country living within easy reach of an intu centre, it is important that we build social togetherness, tackle issues in the communities we serve and make sure that our shopping centres are accessible and welcoming to all.

“We’re pleased to be working with the National Autistic Society to ensure that we can offer a welcoming experience for people on the autism spectrum and their families, with this impactful virtual reality experience an important way of raising awareness of autism among all our shoppers and our staff.”

It is the latest event in the National Autistic Society’ ‘Too Much Information’ public awareness campaign, launched in April to increase public understanding of autism. The charity found that 50% of autistic people and their families sometimes or often don’t leave their homes because they are worried about negative and judgemental responses due to a lack of understanding of autism.

Alex Marshall, the 10-year-old autistic star of the campaign film was at the launch and said: “I hate being in crowds and surrounded by too many people. Sometimes I need a lot of room, and when someone brushes past me, it’s as bad as someone pushing me. Small things can make me overwhelmed and have a meltdown.

“I’ve loved being part of the National Autistic Society’s film, it was like winning the lottery twenty gazillion times and I’m really excited about the VR so I can show my friends how things feel for me. It really helps when people understand things, and this is a really cool way to do it – you can just show someone inside your head! When someone’s seen what it’s like, I think they’ll know why I get overwhelmed, and then they’ll understand that I’m not being naughty.”

Mark Lever, chief executive of the National Autistic Society said:  “Half of autistic people and their families sometimes or often don’t leave their houses because they may receive judgemental and negative reactions to their autism from other members of the public. We launched our Too Much Information campaign in April because hundreds of thousands of autistic people are ending up isolated and lonely due to poor public understanding of autism.

“To help the public understand a little more about autism, we’re really excited to be the first charity using virtual reality to demonstrate what this aspect of autism can feel, see and sound like. Virtual reality is such a fantastic medium and we want to use it to help people identify with a young autistic boy who is having a crisis in a shopping centre.”

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