UK grocery store Waitrose has apologized to a young boy and his family after staff members cruelly made fun of the boy’s mannerisms and appearance.
12-year-old Paul Rowles is on the autism spectrum and uses a variety of techniques to help him cope with the difficulties of a world that wasn’t built for people like him.
One of those comforting techniques is wearing a wig or costume in public places. A costume can give him an extra boost of self-confidence to help him go out in public.
On this particular day, Paul was dressed as his favorite video game character when he and his mother went shopping at the Chantry Centre in Andover. That’s when Nicole Rowles, Paul’s mother, says she heard staff members joking about the way he looked and how he was acting.
“At this point, I turned around and said to them, ‘That’s my son you are making fun of! My 12-year-old autistic son!” recalls Nicole.
After the fact, the mother of four shared her horrendous experience on social media. She posted a photo of Paul in his wig along with her story:
“Their obvious mockery was hard to ignore, they were laughing and making comments of someone they could both see,” she writes. “I didn’t have to wait long for the woman to say with a loud voice, ‘What about that wig though?’ followed with delightful laughter. I have never felt so emotionally beaten in all my life.
“After a poor apology from another manager and the details of an area manager who isn’t even available this week, I left to ensure my boy wouldn’t catch wind of what had just happened.”
Nicole called her husband crying when she thought that Paul was out of earshot. Little did she know, however, that Paul had heard and understood everything that was going on, despite how hard she’d tried to protect him from it.
“Then I felt a strong hug and it was my son!” she writes. “He said, ‘It’s okay, mum. It doesn’t matter what people say.'”
Waitrose apologized for its staff’s actions and promised to launch an investigation into the incident. However, to Nicole, the apology, which came with a £100 gift card, seemed flat and “rehearsed.”
“My 12-year-old-son, who struggles severely to fit in and often finds his own coping strategies to be able to manage situations, has more compassion and understanding than your employees,” says Nicole. “They mocked my boy when he was trying to just cope.”
People who saw the post on social media were also outraged. “What world do we live in in which working-age adults have any excuse in mocking a child?” writes Andrea Rookes.
Lynne Groves adds, “Felt really choked at reading this. Nothing can justify adults doing this, they are the ones who need severe help. They are abnormal, cruel, and twisted.”
A spokeswoman for Waitrose said, “We want everybody to feel welcome in our shop and are deeply sorry to Mrs. Rowles, her son, and her family. The distress they experienced in our shop was completely unacceptable. Since this upsetting incident, we have carried out our own investigation.
“We have also been back in touch with Mrs. Rowles over the weekend to say how sorry we are. In order to express our apologies, we will be making a generous donation to an autism charity.”
Nicole hopes that her son’s story can help bring more awareness to autism and encourage stores like Waitrose to train their employees on how to work with people who have autism or other hidden disabilities.
“What we would like to come from this is changes in policies, a personal apology to my children, and adequate compensation,” she says, “as well as letting the public know what changes they will be implementing in the future to prevent this kind of behaviour.”
UPDATE: After Nicole posted on Facebook about the incident, her message made it into the right hands, and she was able to have a conversation with someone on Waitrose’s executive team. Waitrose agreed to make a generous donation to an ASD charity and to have someone come in to educate their staff about autism.
“We again would like to thank everyone who got behind us, as it helped turn a negative experience into a positive one and hopefully makes more people think before they start to judge,” says Nicole.Whizzco