As well as being an @PlatformHousing Digital Champion volunteer, I also volunteer at a charity shop. I have a diagnosis of Autism and struggle with anxiety and depression. As a result, I often struggle with social interaction, especially when asking for help in shops. Indeed, these scenarios for me, even if it’s just asking a shop assistant if they have an item in another size or if they can recommend a product, can feel so overwhelming and scary. I honestly don’t know why I feel this way, but it is that fear that fuels my desire to help customers at the charity shop as best I can. I will try to be friendly, reassuring, and attentive, all of which I would hope another shop assistant would be to me as when they are, it genuinely feels like a huge weight has been lifted off my shoulders. In fact, it very often makes my whole day! That’s how I want my customers to feel, especially since we get a fair few who would be considered vulnerable.
The shop often receives vulnerable customers and whilst I have developed many skills to provide excellent customer service throughout my volunteering experience, I feel that my ability to listen and relate in some way is the most helpful for them. I often have customers describing their mental health issues or disabilities to me and asking for any recommendations I have for products that may be helpful for them. For instance, I once had a customer with a shopping addiction ask for romantic, light-hearted books to help distract them when they felt the urge to shop. As someone who is an avid reader and always turns to these types of book myself when feeling anxious or in need of a pick-me-up, I was able to find some really good books as well as write a list of my favourite authors whose books they may be able to find elsewhere. We also discussed other coping strategies with me recommending some that I had picked up over the years. They were so grateful for my advice and suggestions, constantly telling me how lovely it was to have someone who could listen and sympathise – they even ended up giving me a hug! I was so pleased to have been able to help them and that they were leaving the shop in a much better state of mind than the one they had entered with.
Another benefit of being able to listen is that people get to tell me stories, something which I can tell by the big smiles on their faces and the laughter, makes them very happy. Not only that but I get to hear some brilliant stuff! Just the other week, I had a customer tell me about their time working in Vegas and meeting the likes of Frank Sinatra, Ginger Rogers and Elvis Presley! I’ve also had people reminisce about their childhood after listening to the Disney songs I play on the shop radio. It’s all so fascinating and interesting to hear about other people’s lives, and I like to think that by having a captive audience in myself, the whole experience has been so enjoyable for them.
However, it’s not just the customers I am always keen to help but also fellow volunteers. I’ve volunteered with individuals also on the Autism spectrum and/or dealing with mental health issues and disabilities. As someone who is aware of how these conditions can be so isolating and with an idea of what their challenges may be in the shop, I help train them, act as their first point of call and try to meet up with them outside of the shop. Although my Autism makes me incredibly reliant on routine and set times (if someone says to me that they’re going to do something or be somewhere at a certain time, I’ll expect that to be exactly what happens), I am beginning to be more patient and less stressed when coffee and cinema outings are cancelled at the last minute (often when I’m already at the venue!) because I really, truly do understand that things happen or they may not feel up to coming because, well, it’s happened to me. The last thing I want is for them to feel uncomfortable around me as a result or get into an even worse state. I want them to enjoy the volunteering experience, to make new friends and to form fond memories, as I have, and I will continue helping as best I can to achieve that.
I’m going to end now on a really cheesy note but as you can tell, for me it really is so satisfying to be able to help others! After all, isn’t there a saying – treat those as you would like to be treated yourself?
If you or someone you know needs help with living with autism contact the National Autistic Society Helpline Mon to Fri 10am to 12pm and 1pm to 3pm or visit there website