Happy little helper

Jenny B
28th March 2018
Charlie and Jenny shopping with the symbol game board
Charlie and Jenny shopping with the symbol game board

Jenny's son Charlie has autism and uses Makaton. Helping another boy with autism while at work inspired her to invent a Makaton symbol shopping list game that's now available in over 300 Asda stores nationwide to help make shopping fun!

Charlie was diagnosed with autism just after his 2nd birthday.  With Charlie it was easy to diagnose because he was non-verbal, very frustrated and there were a few quirky things he did, like bounce around on his knees and flap his arms.

All I wanted to concentrate on was a way to make him less frustrated because that was the worst part: not knowing what he wanted and what was causing some of the frustration. When Charlie started speech and language therapy and they used Makaton he really took an interest, so we rolled with that rather than PECS (picture exchange communication). I started to watch Mr Tumble to help me learn Makaton!

When Charlie turned 4 he was starting to say little words like Mummy, Daddy, Grandad and Nan Nan because I'd taught him the signs for family members. Then when he started full-time school I found out about a Makaton course in my local centre and signed up straight away. This was in the September, by December he could identify all the letters and sign them.

He knew all the colours and could sign them, and then came all the words to go with them. He was starting to talk a lot more because he was using Makaton and you have to speak as well as sign. He was coming on amazingly and with that he became a lot less frustrated. It was like having a different child: he became such a happy little 4 year old.

ASDA board with Makaton symbols
Asda board with Makaton symbols

Now Charlie is 5 he is such a special little man. He is like any other 5 year old boy: he likes to climb, play with toy cars, play with action figures, and loves to make new friends. All of his quirky behaviours have subsided.

Charlie has always been good in shops but not all children are the same. I was at work in Asda one Sunday  when I heard screaming. I went looking for the child making all the noise. Before I had Charlie I knew nothing about autism so I would have just thought it was a child not getting a toy they wanted or some sweets, but on this day I knew it was different.

When I approached the Mum and boy, the Mum was very distressed and the child was screaming on the floor. I asked if there was anything I could do. She explained that he had autism and I said "it's OK, my little boy has autism so I know how you feel".

I asked if I could try and chat to him to calm him down. I laid on the floor with him and just started by asking his name and what he liked to play with. He started to calm down so I told the Mum to go finish her shopping and if i needed her I would come and find her.  Me and the young boy got on great and the Mum was gone for 2 minutes getting the rest of her bits: she thanked me and off they went. He was so much calmer, and so was his Mum!

I couldn't stop thinking about the poor Mum. I know it's got to be hard on the kids but it's especially hard on the parents. I came up with the idea of doing a shopping list game using Makaton symbols.  I got the idea from Charlie using them at school.  I knew the symbols that are all over Charlie's school help the children know what they are doing next, and help them stay calm because they know the structure of the day, and I wanted that same sense of calm and structure for them when they come to Asda.

Meet Jenny display
The 'Meet Jenny' display in over 300 Asda stores

I asked Charlie's school teachers to come and have a look at the design and give me any tips to make it suitable for the children. Then a local paper became involved and they wanted to do an article.

Asda heard about my idea and wanted to make their own version but with me involved, and we came up with a board that was sent to over 300 stores around the country, with a poster and a Meet Jenny leaflet.

UPDATE 3rd April 2019: Asda is to roll-out the use of Makaton to aid both children and adults with learning and communication difficulties, in all its UK superstores. Initially 394 Asda superstores across the entire country will have Makaton shopping lists available for free in-store from the customer service desk for customers to collect at the start of their shop.

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