Sunway Putra is now autism-friendly

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Phang Sau Lian, general manager of Sunway Putra Mall, (second from left) with her team in the Calm Room.

It’s a typical scenario when a family with an autistic child goes to the mall: The autistic child might be stressed because of the bright lights, crowd and noises. The public stares at the child who is flapping his arms. They may keep their distance, not sure what to make of this child. If the child reacts to the noise and the crowd, the child’s parents will inevitably be blamed for not having better control of their child. The family tries to complete the shopping as fast as possible to minimise stress to the child and the parents. It needn’t be this way and one mall is out to change this.

Sunway Putra Mall in Kuala Lumpur became autism-friendly with the launch of its Autsome initiative by Hannah Yeoh, Deputy Minister of Women, Family and Community Development, on Feb 26, 2019. It now offers a special day for autistic children and their families to shop with special services rolled out for them.

Hannah Yeoh, Deputy Minister of Women, Family and Community Development, at the launch of Autsome on Feb 26, 2019

Phang Sau Lian, general manager of Sunway Putra Mall, reveals that the idea for Autsome came about rather suddenly in December last year.

“One of our tenants brought up the topic of autism. When I discussed it with my team, we found out that each of us had a close relative or family member with an autistic child. We realised then that autism is quite common these days. We were all familiar with some of the challenges families face when it comes to shopping and how stressful it is when they take their kids out to public areas. We shared what we knew and what our friends and family members had gone through.

“Then we had the idea for Autsome. We felt that Sunway Putra Mall should do something because many times the public in general is still not aware of autism.

“Coincidentally, at the same time, we were approached by Autism Behavioural Centre (ABC) to support the autism community. They had an event for their community and they invited us. It was a small gathering and we shared our ideas about doing something at the mall. From there, the news got out to social media. That’s when we sped up the process and the execution of Autsome. We knew we had to launch the initiative fast,” explained Phang.

In January, the mall had a soft launch and based on suggestions, feedback and advice from families, the programme was improvved.

What is so awesome about Autsome?

Usually, families with autistic children prefer to shop on days when the mall is not so busy as it would be quieter and not as crowded. So, Sunway Putra Mall has identified Tuesday as its autism-friendly shopping day, from 10am-5pm, except public holidays.

Every Tuesday, the lights in common areas and participating outlets are dimmed by about 30% and the volume of the music is lowered by about 70%.

Families should register online to become an Autsome member. This membership comes with a kit containing a special blue identification wristband, which the child is encouraged to wear each time they visit this mall, for easy identification by mall staff. The family would also receive a special parking sticker which allows them to park in a designated area every Tuesday.

The Autsome Kit is given out to those who register. The blue band is for the autistic child to wear whenever he or she visits Sunway Putra Mall. It helps the mall staff identify Autsome members so that they can assist in any way.

“With the car sticker, our personnel will be able to identify them when they arrive at the mall. They will then be able to park at the reserved parking area, which is in close proximity to the lift and escalator, making it convenient for them. They don’t have to walk far to search for the lobby or lift to go up to the mall,” said Phang.

There is also a quick checkout option at participating stores for families which need to leave the shop fast if their autistic child is restless. For the convenience of parents, participating tenants agreed to provide a privilege to Autsome families by giving them priority when it comes to payment at the cashier.

Some tenants, such as The Parenthood Playland and C-A-T Playground, offer free entry for Autsome members on Tuesdays. Additionally, Kaw Kaw Burger, Pak Jen Gulai Panas Langkawi, Juice Works and Travel Store offer discounts to Autsome members on Tuesdays.

There is a Calm Room that families can use if their child needs a soothing space. The room is painted in pastel colours and has dim lighting. In addition, there are tools that can be used to help their child calm down, such as essential oils and sensory toys. All of this is free for families to use. The room can accommodate only two or three families at the same time. However, the good news is the mall is planning to have more Calm Rooms soon.

Right now, only 10% of tenants have committed to the programme, including Cold Storage, The Body Shop, Padini, The Chicken Rice Shop, Dolly Dim Sum, Onde Onde, Kampung Kravers, Swensens and Krispy Kreme.

“We have just started, so we are still in the midst of encouraging other tenants to join us. Some are chain stores and others are international brands, so they need approval from their principal. They also need to undergo special training. We are confident that most of them will come in one day,” said Phang.

To prepare for this programme, ABC trained the Sunway Putra Mall frontline staff (including guards) as well as tenants to identify people on the autism spectrum and how to approach parents to offer help. This included do’s and don’ts. As the Autism Specturm Disorder (ASD) presents differently in each child, it’s not always easy to identify. This is why the blue wristband is handy for easy identification.

“Our frontliners such as our customer care team and our security team will pay attention when they notice people wearing the Autsome wristband. They will try to help the family if they need help, for example to carry their shopping bags to the car if they have too many bags. On Tuesdays, even my office and marketing teams are on standby to help out if required.

“Families are also given our hotline number which they can call should they need assistance when they are in the mall,” said Phang.

Sunway Putra Mall’s objective is to create an inclusive and comfortable shopping experience for families with autistic children. Autsome’s tagline is Educate Advocate Celebrate. All over the mall, shoppers will find posters explaining what is autism, how to spot the behaviours, what the public should and shouldn’t do (including not judging). The same information is also posted on the mall’s social media channels.

“Of course, we also want to increase awareness and understanding among the public. Most importantly is acceptance of ASD. Frequently, unpleasant incidents happen because the public doesn’t understand and are not able to accept the behaviour of an autistic person,” informed Phang.

She informed that this initiative is in line with Sunway Group’s core value, which is humility, and its sustainable development goals.

“This is our long-term objective. We want to build sustainable cities and communities and reduce inequalities. While we are trying our best to achieve our business objectives, we also have to give back to society. This is also part of our corporate soial responsibility. This is not a one-off event. Autsome is a long-term commitment. That’s why we are doing our best to educate the public. I believe people are more well educated and will understand better and they are more willing to come forward to help and support. So, I believe it won’t reduce our public shoppers on Tuesdays. In fact, we are confident that the general public will see this positively and be more willing to come and support us,” she added.

So far, more than 350 families have registered for Autsome. The feedback from Autsome families has been positive and promising so far. Many say they feel comfortable going to the mall because the staff, security and tenants understand them better.

Some things like the Calm Room and a few of the sensory walls were designed and decorated by the Sunway Putra Mall staff themselves.

One of the sensory walls at the mall.

The team at Sunway Putra knows there may be hurdles and hiccups ahead but they are prepared to resolve those issues one by one as they come along.

“What we have done so far is just on a small scale. Our mall is not a huge mega mall so it is suitable for families. We find that this is a comfortable space for them as it’s not too big nor too small. They can easily get their groceries, entertaintment, food and other shopping done,” said Phang.

According to her, the Sunway Group’s other malls will be rolling out similar programmes. As each mall is different, the services offered will vary accordingly.