CHRISTMAS CHEER: Gympie Target store manager Christian Squires and psychologist Dr Michelle Curran discuss the upcoming sensory shopping day.
CHRISTMAS CHEER: Gympie Target store manager Christian Squires and psychologist Dr Michelle Curran discuss the upcoming sensory shopping day. Jacob Carson

How stores will give autistic kids a chance at Christmas

ASK any person braving the shops this holiday season, and they'll often tell you about how much of a stressful, exhausting experience it can be.

But for many children who are living on the autism spectrum or with sensory difficulties, buying a present for mum or dad, can be nearly impossible.

It's why, in a first for Queensland and one of the first for the country, the Gympie Target store will be going above and beyond to spread a little Christmas cheer.

The store will play host to a "sensory shopping experience" on December 4, transforming into a controlled and safe environment for families to shop in.

"There's lots of children out there on the spectrum or with other developmental disabilities who basically can't go shopping at all," says Dr Michelle Curran, who helped develop the idea.

"All of the lights and the sounds and the people in the store can overload them - they're always aware of all of this information whereas others might just focus on what they want to."

With shopping centres a hotbed of stimuli that can send kids into "meltdowns", the goal for the shopping experience is to create a calm and quiet atmosphere.

The store lights will be dimmed by more than 50% and the in-store music will be shut off completely.

During a walk-through of the store to prepare for the event last week, the idea of placing tactile fabric on the shelving for children to hold on to was also discussed.

"It's not just something that feels nice for them," Dr Curran says, "It's giving them something to focus on that might distract from getting too overstimulated."

Conceived locally, the program has been warmly embraced by upper Target management, with talk of hopefully expanding the program to other stores.

"They were very responsive to the idea further up, but even amongst my staff there was a really positive reception," says Christian Squires, one of the managers at the Gympie Target.

"Pretty much all of my full-time staff have agreed to work on the Sunday, which they don't typically tend to work anyway."

Spearheaded by Annette Nugent, who works at Goldfields Plaza and has children who can get overstimulated easily, the program is just as much for the parents and families as it is for the kids.

"It's also an opportunity for parents to meet other parents who are in the same situation, which doesn't happen very often," Mrs Nugent says.

"People really don't know about what kind of services are available in town, and that isolates them within themselves."

Mrs Nugent also believes the day will provide a great opportunity for education in an area that still leaves many families in the dark.

"We need to integrate into the kid's world as much as they need to integrate into our world," she adds.

"For many kids, this will be the first time they'll ever get to head to the counter and pay for something themselves - it's a big thing."

The sensory shopping experience will run from 8am to 10am on Sunday, December 4 at the Gympie Target store in Goldfields Plaza.

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