When I first heard about Sunway Putra Mall’s Autism Friendly Shopping Day, I was quite skeptical. My son, Haans, is three and half, with moderate autism. Shopping with him can either be enjoyable or extremely exhausting. Autism is a spectrum after all. So, I have learned to expect the unexpected on outings.
One Tuesday morning, I chalked up the courage to bring my son to Sunway Putra Mall, by myself. Daunting and with no expectations in mind, I braved morning traffic from Shah Alam to the heart of Kuala Lumpur.
Planning the outing
A few days prior, I went to the website, to find out about the facilities available. My first thought, parking privileges available but we need to go the Concierge to pick up the kit first? So, I filled up the GoogleForm online and proceeded to send an email to inquire of the parking privileges. Within a day, I received a reply. My car details were taken, and someone from concierge offered to meet me at the parking lot with their Autsome Kit. Sunway Putra Mall named this initiative Autsome which stands for Autism is Awesome.
Arriving at Sunway Putra Mall
I arrived rather early, hence, parking was abundant since it was also a weekday. Since my son was in good spirits, I parked at the first available lot in sight. I also thought to leave the reserved Autsome lots for others who may need it more than I.
Quickly, we made our way to the Concierge at G level. Walking in, I was quick to notice three very important things:
- Lights were dimmed – an important element for some on the autism spectrum. Some experience more sensory issues than others whereby excessive lighting could disturb them.
- Music volume was low – I could hear music but not as loud. It was pleasant and calming. Loud sounds also tend to bother some people with autism.
- My son remained calm – my son was happy to enter in this new, unknown place. He is usually quite wary of new places, at times even refusing to enter. This time however, he entered happily with that curious cheeky smile of his, intent on exploring!
The Autsome Kit
We received our Autsome Kit. The friendly concierge was quick to tell us about some of the privileges we could enjoy. He pointed out key areas such as the Sensory Walls and informed us of the Calm Room available at the Lower Ground Level. At that point in time, Parenthood and the Cat Playground were offering free entry for anyone with the Autsome band on every Tuesday (provided it is not a public holiday).
The concierge kindly offered to show us around. I thanked him but preferred to explore on our own, as I had to be guided by my son’s temperament too.
So, we began exploring…
Our first stop was the Parenthood, an indoor playground. By showing the Autsome band, we were allowed in immediately. The play area is huge! Being a weekday, we had the place to ourselves. My son was a little reluctant to enter at first but calmed down rather quickly. I noticed the area was child safe, so I did not need to restrict his movement.
I believe he enjoyed not being restricted and was quite happy to roam about freely. He took his time to explore and overall had a pleasant experience here. Next, it was time to move on…but first…meltdown number 1. He did not want to leave, so I proceeded to my usual, carry him (kicking, screaming and all), under the watchful eyes of passersby. Up the escalator we went.
The sensory walls
We arrived at the first Sensory Wall! And what a blessing it was. He was intrigued. At first, I semi-forced him to touch the different textures. There was a good mix of soft and rough textures, shiny surfaces and an assortment of shapes. Eventually, he started to explore it on his own.
There are 3 Sensory Walls in the mall on Levels 2 and 3. Positioned rather strategically along these two levels, it is a good “in-between” break for parents who are shopping with children. In fact, this wall benefits all children and can be a good distraction. The walls also gave me a chance to take a breather in between meltdowns.
After exploring the various Sensory Walls along the way, we went to the Cat Playground on Level 1. Here, my son enjoyed laying about on the large cushions and rolling around with the friendly cats. Interesting fact, cats can provide an avenue of positive relationships for children with autism. Cats tend to be affectionate, benefiting children with autism and their families.
The Cat Playground also works with Dr. Khew who runs Animals For Young, a centre that provides Animal Therapy and other services for individuals with special needs. Animal assisted therapy incorporates the use of animals such as horses, cats, dogs and so on. It has been an effective form of intervention for individuals with special needs such as autism.
Time to calm down
Needless to say, he had a ball of a time with the cats. When it was time to leave, the ultimate meltdown ensued! Rolling on the floor, kicking and screaming. It’s a blur to me, but we somehow, we made it to the “Calm Room” at the Lower Ground Level (next to Nandos).
We entered and he began to calm down as he sought comfort in soft textured pillows coupled with the “music turtle” playing calming music in the background. This room is fully equipped with sensory toys, pillows, a comfortable couch, and even a weighted blanket. It is clean and lighting dimmed which does not overwhelm someone who is already in a “tantrum mode”. It also gives the parent a chance to calm themselves down from dealing with a meltdown, or just a few minutes to catch up on messages or return important phone calls.
Why Autism Friendly Shopping Day?
We asked Sunway Putra Mall, why autism? Ms. Phang Sau Lian, General Manager of Sunway Putra Mall said,
“When we first approached this initiative, we found one thing in common amongst our colleagues; a number of us knew at least one person with autism and the challenges they face in public places like shopping malls. Thus, this project is very close to our hearts. We decided to embark on this journey to advocate Autism Awareness.”
The aim is to provide an inclusive and comfortable shopping experience while creating awareness towards increasing public understanding of autism. Sunway Putra Mall will also extend these privileges to other types of special needs in addition to autism. There are also plans for another Calm Room on Level 3 which should be ready by the third quarter of 2019. As for other Sunway Malls, the management says it is being considered.
In a nutshell
Registration is only required for the first visit. Patrons are encouraged to reuse the Autsome bands for subsequent visits. The Autsome initiative includes the following privileges daily:
- Access to the Calm Room at level LG
- Sensory Walls on Levels 2 and 3
Every Tuesday 10am – 5pm (except public holidays) – Autism Friendly Shopping Day includes the following:
- Dimmed lighting
- Lowered volume levels
- Reserved Parking at Level B1 (first come first serve basis). Stickers available at the concierge upon online registration online.
- Special discounts and privileges offered by participating tenants. List available here.
- Assistance from concierge personnel
Despite my son’s tantrums and meltdowns, it was a positive experience. The Sensory Walls certainly do create a welcomed distraction. The Calm Room is indeed a blessing too. Overall, Sunway Putra Mall has made an excellent attempt at being Malaysia’s first Autism Friendly Mall.
Now with a Bigger Calm Room
In October 2019, the second Calm Room was launched on Level 3 of Sunway Putra Mall by YB Teo Neo Ching, Deputy Minister of Education. This room is much larger and is complete with bean bags, throw pillows, weighted blankets, Art & Reading Corner, jigsaw puzzles and a lovely sensory wall. The lounge area in this room also provides a welcome avenue for parents to unwind. Additionally, both Calm Rooms are now equipped with facial recognition devices for parents to access the rooms. A one time registration is required at the Concierge Counter.
[This piece was updated on 12 Nov 2019]