Peace of mind: How children's brands are addressing mental health issues

Jack Ridsdale

By Jack Ridsdale

May 5th 2017 at 11:10AM
UPDATED May 9th 2017 at 2:28PM
Peace of mind: How children's brands are addressing mental health issues

Parents have called for toy retailers to follow the example of Toys R Us and introduce more measures to accommodate children with autism and mental health issues. Meanwhile, toy firms and children’s brands are beginning to create products that cater to or raise awareness for those who live with autism and mental health disorders. Jack Ridsdale finds out what is being done for this cause and what still remains to be addressed.

It’s easy to take for granted the simple experiences that we partake in on a daily basis, from going to the shops to enjoying a film in the cinema, but for people with autism, these tasks can present unseen challenges.

The National Autistic Society has launched an awareness campaign aiming to educate the public on these issues that often go unnoticed in the form of its ‘Too Much Information’ campaign. The campaign began as a short film/TV ad that proved so effective that it eventually went on to become a VR experience, aiming to place viewers in the shoes of a child struggling with the experience of walking around a shopping centre. People with autism, especially children, can often become overwhelmed with the sheer amount of information they are forced to process in busy situations and this is, unfortunately, a problem that children have to deal with on a daily basis, even when in their favourite place, the toy shop.

“Most modern shops are very noisy, have fluorescent lighting and self-service tills, which can
be very overwhelming in sensory terms,” comments Tom Purser of the National Autistic Society, “on the other hand, the lack of public understanding can also have a detrimental impact on their day-to- day experiences.”

Taking its cues from cinemas that offer ‘autism-friendly’ screenings for families and children with the condition, international chain Toys R Us has been the first to answer the need for special attention for children with autism by introducing Quiet Hours, an initiative that sees efforts to make children with special needs feel more at ease at the shops, due to a quieter environment with dimmed lights and staff equipped to accommodate the children’s needs in pressured scenarios.

Last month, ToyNews reached out to the National Autistic Society for comment on toy store’s efforts on this front, with the organisation’s Daniel Cadey commenting that there is still a lot that can be done for kids. We followed up with the organisation to get some more insight into what retailers can do to accommodate this often ignored audience.

Louisa Mullen from the organisation outlined the charity’s criteria for its autism-friendly award, stressing that there are no shortcuts to creating the perfect shopping experience for children with autism, instead, putting the emphasis on bringing in or maintaining a level of well-trained staff in store.

“There isn’t a magic formula for the creation of an autism friendly store or venue,” explains Mullen, “The things that really count are staff training, clear online info which can help autistic children and adults plan their visits in advance, to minimise anxiety, and the all-important post-event feedback from shoppers.”

Naturally, topping the list is staff knowledge and willingness to help shoppers with additional needs, highlighting “a willingness to be flexible to individual requests, and promoting a clear way for autistic people to provide feedback on their experience.”

“Our criteria for the Autism Friendly Award is a good guideline that goes across the breadth of retailers,” explains Purser.

“Things like providing a quiet area, making sure the staff are well informed and dimming the lights slightly are the sorts of things that are straightforward for any retailer to accommodate for autistic visitors. Using social media to inform visitors and prepare them to the layout are also cost effective ways of making the experience better for these individuals.”

Sarah Jurenka, the parent of an 11-year-old boy that lives with autism presents an alternative point of view, arguing that coddling children should be avoided so that they can become prepared for the real world.

“We as a society are going to have to decide whether we are going to force our autistic children to function in society or whether we are going to continue to shelter them,” explains Jurenka, “believe me, as a parent I always want to shelter my autistic son and my daughter who has no special needs. I now know after a decade

of dealing with these setbacks, that in my particular situation it is best for my son to be forced to participate in society and in regular social settings.”

Helen Gourley, owner of Toy Hub, an independent retailer, has noticed that certain products have been particularly effective at bringing autistic children out of their shell and helping them to interact with other children in a social setting.

“We’ve found that Dobble has been a really useful resource, as it gets kids interacting with each other,” adds Gourley, “It’s quite astounding to watch children that wouldn’t usually give each other eye contact, sitting and playing. 

One of our customers who is a speech therapist has also pointed out Duplo, which can help children who aren’t as confident in speaking to learn those special skills.” 

As well as toy retailers, the wider entertainment world is beginning to recognise the plight of those with mental health disorders.

Sesame Street has recently introduced its first character with autism in the form of Julia, who is designed not only to teach children key lessons about how those with autism think and behave but also to give children with autism a character that they can identify and engage with on-screen, thus increasing awareness early.

The first scenes released including the Julia character teach key lessons about the plight of those who live with Autism, for example the character’s reluctance to shake hands as a greeting. Dr. Jeanette Betancourt, SVP of US Social Impact at Sesame Workshop explains that for kids with autism, seeing a character who is like them in their favourite show is a key way to make them feel less isolated, not to mention the additional support from their peers.

“For years, families of children with autism have asked us to address the issue,” explains Betancourt. “We heard a call to use our expertise and characters to build a bridge between the autism and neurotypical communities.

So many partners, advisors, and organisations have contributed to the success of this initiative, and we are thrilled to have the benefit of this collaboration as we launch this latest chapter.”

Since the first footage of Julia was released, there has been an outpouring of support and gratitude from the autism community across the globe.

“Bringing Julia to life as a Sesame Street Muppet is the centrepiece of all of our new materials to support families of children with autism,” comments Sherrie Westin, EVP of global impact and philanthropy at Sesame Workshop.

“The response from the autism community has been extraordinary, and we are committed to continuing our efforts to promote understanding and acceptance of autism, as part of our mission of helping all children grow smarter, stronger, and kinder.”

“Since the first episode featuring Julia aired, we’ve received such positive feedback from parents and children alike,” adds Sean Gorman, programming director of kid’s channels UK and Ireland at Turner.

“Her character has truly made an impact and increased awareness for autism. We’re thrilled that Julia will be appearing across all-new episodes of season 47 of Sesame Street.”

Children of all ages can catch the adventures of Julia and friends on Sesame Street every day at 3:30pm on Cartoonito.

While autism is gaining awareness in the public consciousness, there are many mental health issues that are still going unnoticed by the industry. Issues like depression, OCD and ADHD have yet to gain mainstream representation like Julia, but with autism becoming less stigmatised and increasingly understood by the mainstream, it bodes well for the acceptance and representation of these issues. Recently public figures including Prince Harry have spoken out about their struggles with mental health, increasing public awareness on the issues, and this coupled with movies and video games becoming more willing to represent these issues, may mean it’s time for kids to start learning about them at an earlier age in their lives.

When it comes to retailers, the best thing that they can do for customers with mental health issues is to be open and educated. Being well-versed in the needs of differently abled customers is step one and being thoughtful and considerate of their needs is a sure-fire way to ensure a positive shopping experience, while forward-thinking firms like the Sesame Workshop and advisory boards like the NAS provide the much-needed awareness and understanding of the issues currently at play.