Staff at St Johns Shopping Centre are to become Autism Aware to make sure they offer a welcome and understanding to all members of the community.
Around 60 people from the management team, security, maintenance and domestic staff will undergo training over the next 12 months.
The staff will wear official badges to identify themselves to people with autism or families with autistic children, and to show that they are Autism Aware and able to deal with situations should they arise.
Neil Ashcroft, St Johns centre manager, said: “We already have stores like The Entertainer which have started to roll out Autism-friendly hours on a Saturday morning between 9-10am where they turn the music off, and we have responded by turning off the music in the lower mall where the store is situated.
“We are supporting our retailers and saying that we are passionate about delivering the same level of customer service to everybody in the community.
“All our staff are Dementia Friends and it is important that we are Autism Aware too.”
Autism is a developmental disorder that can affect a child’s basic skills, such as socialising or forming relationships, as well as communication.
The world around them can seem very different to a child or adult without autism and symptoms can include difficulty with social interaction, like relating to people and/or their surroundings.
“People don’t realise how prevalent autism is,” explained Neil. “And I think it’s really important that our team has the skills to deal with any situation that can occur, to understand all our customers and how best to serve them.”
Neil became aware of the condition when he was manager of New Mersey Shopping Park in Speke and initiated the training there, learning off-putting a shopping experience could be for people with it.
“If someone with autism has a meltdown or hits out our staff need to know how to react, and how things can escalate quickly if a situation is poorly handled. If, for instance, a member of our security team saw an adult almost sitting on a child in the mall they could think they were abusing the child when they might actually be restraining them and stopping them from hurting themselves.
“Someone with Autism Awareness training can help to calm the situation and allow the parent to carry on.”
Neil added that, eventually, he would like more retailers to be involved but said the centre was leading by example.
“When we position ourselves as a community shopping centre and brand ourselves as being ‘for everybody’ there has to be substance to that. This is about training our team, supporting the Autism Awareness charity and showing our customers that we engage all our customers and are not just paying lip service to the claim.
“It’s part of our programme of developing our team and it’s a constantly evolving one to make us better for our community.”