Some stores open early exclusively to children with autism and their families, taking measures to make the ambiance sensory-friendly.

About 1 in 59 children in America have autism spectrum disorder, according to statistics from the Center for Disease Control. While autism can vary widely, sensory sensitivity is a common trait. People with ASD may get overstimulated by noise, lights, and other aspects of modern life, making something like a trip to the store an overwhelming experience. This can be even tougher during the holiday season, when stores are packed with crowds.

Melissa from Dunstable knows how challenging shopping can be for those with sensory sensitivities. She’s mom to 11-year-old twins, James and Ben, who are autistic and non-verbal, and 9-year-old Matt, who was diagnosed with high functioning autism. The best time to shop is early in the morning, when the day is fresh, she said. Her twins use noise-cancelling headphones and they prefer to shop at times when the stores are less crowded and noisy.

In recent years, many stores have started to rethink the holiday shopping experience for customers with children with special needs. With a few modifications to bring down sensory stimulation, shopping can be easier for families like Melissa’s. Stores such as JC Penny, Target, and Barnes & Noble have offered “quiet hours” for shopping -- times when the store opens early exclusively to children with autism and their families, with measures to make the ambiance sensory-friendly.

The Framingham Barnes & Noble held its first sensory-friendly event last spring, with support and guidance from the Doug Flutie Jr. Autism Alliance, and has since held the event each quarter.

“Our doors open one hour early for our sensory friendly shopper, so they can have the store to themselves prior to our public opening time,” explained Suzanne Hamel, Community Business Development Manager at Barnes & Noble. “We dim the lighting, shut off the wide screens and turn of the store sound system. They have the benefit of customer service representatives, booksellers to help with selections and merchandise discovery and uninterrupted access to cashiers.”

Melissa’s family has attended several sensory-friendly events, but a “Caring Santa” event at the Burlington Mall, stands out in her mind. There, adjustments are made to support the sensory, physical and other developmental needs of children of all abilities. This year, the special event will be held from 9-10:30 a.m. on Sundays, December 2 and 9.

“The malls do a nice job having activities for the kids to do while they wait and it is quiet and calm in the mall while the families wait -- not a typical line,” Melissa recalled. “You sign up and they call you by number for certain times. Last year [there were] therapy dogs there to pet while you waited. It was amazing!”

Other, smaller local businesses have also taken steps to making shopping more inclusive. Jessica Rollins, who owns Bridle Path Tack in Westminster, carefully planned the layout of the store: everything is on casters, making the space easier to navigate, and allowing people in wheelchairs to get around comfortably, and the changing rooms are spacious; big enough to hold two to three people such as a rider a parent or PCA, personal care assistant.

Rollins strives to create a calming shopping time for riders or their family members with sensory sensitivities or for those on the autism spectrum. She designed the shop hours around people who might need more quiet, privacy, or less sensory stimulation, offering morning hours by appointment only.