It's a supermarket like no other in New Zealand ...

There's no piped background music, the lights are dimmed or turned off ... an air of quiet calm has replaced the hurry and hassle of grocery shopping.

For one hour a week, Countdown Marton is a peaceful haven — and that is delighting an oft-forgotten section of the community.

For parents with autistic children and adults with Autism Spectrum Disorder, a minor task like grocery shopping can be impossible.


But Marton Countdown has introduced the first ever "quiet hour" for those with autism and sensory issues, and every Wednesday from 3pm until 4pm, the store is transformed.

The idea was put forward by staff member Lara Hogg who has a severely autistic 13-year-old son named Hunter.

She approached store manager Kirsten Dinnan to suggest a sensory hour.

"We put forward a proposal to Countdown and the amazing hour was born," Ms Dinnan said.

The first sensory hour took place during Autism Awareness Week on April 4.

"We flick off every second light in the shop, we turn off the lights in all our chillers and freezer units, which makes the fans lighter," Ms Dinnan said.

The PA system and music is switched off and there are no staff working stock, or rattling cages or trolleys.

"We've also gone to our local $2 shop and bought some sensory-friendly toys for the kids."


The quiet hour was so successful that it is now a weekly event.

Sensory hours have been rolled out throughout Australia and England with great success, but Marton Countdown is the first in New Zealand.

Lara said it is impossible to take Hunter to the shops because his senses got too overloaded.

"He'll start to tense up the moment we get into the carpark. He's fixated on his routines, so he'll be barging past people, he gets in people's way and we usually get about two aisles into the supermarket before he's completely overwhelmed.

"He can't cope, so he's usually screaming, pinching or grabbing just because he's so overloaded."

Rhys Hogg takes 13-year-old son Hunter shopping during the quiet hour.
Rhys Hogg takes 13-year-old son Hunter shopping during the quiet hour.

Most people with Autism Spectrum Disorder have a sensory processing issue and the simple act of shopping can cause physical pain.

"In effect, these guys receive far too much feedback from their environment from all of their senses, so they are hearing and seeing absolutely everything," Lara said.

"When the lights are on and the glare is reflecting off the floor, they're seeing that and it hurts. But they can't express it, so for Hunter, he expresses it through screaming, punching, hitting himself.

"Screaming helps him, because it blocks out the noise."

It is estimated Autism Spectrum Disorder affects 1 in 66 New Zealanders.

Hunter will spend the rest of his life living with his parents and won't be able to integrate into a group home because of his high needs.

"This is one reason why I'm loving these quiet hours because this is an opportunity to be able to come into a supermarket and learn how to walk nicely, how to push a trolley, how to make decisions," Lara said.

"We're learning how to wait nicely in queue and we're beginning to understand how a transaction occurs, training our staff here at Countdown enables parents like us to be able to teach these life skills when they're going to be with us for the next 40 or 50 years."

Another customer relishing the quiet hour is Marton resident Annette Brown whose son Nathanael is on the spectrum.

"Three of us have Irlen Syndrome [a visual disorder that affects the brain's ability to process visual information], so it's good for all of us," she said.

"Because the lights are not so bright, it's a lot calmer. I don't come in a bit stressed out to begin with — it's not as overwhelming and I don't get headaches from the lights.

"I can come in and don't need to panic. The other children can look after Nathanael in the shop and I can give them tasks to do."

Autism New Zealand has worked closely with Countdown to get the initiative off the ground.

Autism New Zealand cheif executive Dane Dougan said one of their national educators worked with the Marton staff before the quiet hour rolled out.

He said autism had an invisible nature which could make it much harder to create awareness and understanding.

Ms Dinnan said the response from the community had been overwhelmingly positive.

"It's been a massive learning experience for the team but the feedback has blown me away."

When Autism New Zealand posted about the quiet hour on Facebook, hundreds of people commented saying they wished they had a similar initiative in their community.

So Ms Dinnan and Lara have set themselves a big goal — to get the quiet hour rolled out across all Countdown stores.

"I have had some interest from other stores, and Lara and I are going to put together a "how to" guide, to make the process easy for them," Ms Dinnan said.

Countdown spokeswoman Kate Porter said the company was "immensely proud of the Countdown Marton team for making such as difference to their customers".

"We are considering this in other areas."

Lara said it seemed like such a small thing, but it made such a big difference.

"If I get to change their lives for the better, then I go home a happy woman at the end of the day."


For Countdown staff member Lara Hogg, one of the best aspects of the Marton supermarket's quiet hour is being able to being her autistic son Hunter without the stares, pointing and the judgment.

"We've been out in public and been told we should give Hunter a smack; we've had another one tell us 'If we can't control it, we should keep it locked up'.

"So to be able to bring our children into the supermarket and just go about our daily lives with no one batting an eyelid, it's the most wonderful thing.

"That's why it's important to see other stores pick this up because there are so many thousand other families like ours around the country."