Unconscious Ableism: Autistic People Often Followed, Harassed by Store Security

Autistic and similarly neurodivergent individuals are often followed by loss prevention/asset protection associates and other types of store security for “suspicious behavior”.

This is because, per policies like Walmart’s AP-09, neurodivergent individuals fit the first element (alert signals) loss prevention looks for in potential shoplifters.

Stuffed sheep toy inside cup of bra at store

I have experienced being on both sides of this equation — I’m a neurodivergent individual with seven months of experience in loss prevention.

Asset protection associates do not receive neurodivergent training, though they are heavily reprimanded for unconscious racial bias.

By default, you have an entire collection of loss prevention employees instantly judging neurodivergent individuals. Employers would never knowingly hire a neurodivergent individual for this position, because of what is required.

I’m certain my previous store would reference my autism as being why I failed at my job. I blame my femaleness for it, as male APAs received instant respect and placement of authority, while I was expected to work to build trust and earn respect.

Employers claim to be non-discriminatory for legal purposes, but are definitely not.

Shoplifter alert signals mimic traits of neurodivergent individuals

Autism, Tourette syndrome and ADHD traits stood out to me the most when I was learning about alert signals. Further investigating uncovered a list of warning signs that basically listed every autism and ADHD trait like they were villains in The Flash.

Ironically, AP-09 has an anti-discrimination clause:

Neither authorized associates nor any other associate may monitor or surveil a person in a Facility based solely on race, color […] disability […] or any other protected legal status.

But you don’t know what you don’t know. So when alert signals resemble neurodivergent traits, where is the line?

Shoplifter signs look like:

  • looking at an object and looking around
  • twitchy (e.g. involuntary muscle spams, stims)
  • “shifty eyes” and/or lack of eye contact
  • various types of stimming, including pacing and flicking fingers
  • stimuli responses, like looking everywhere or appearing squirrelly, as the result of heightened sensory awareness and input
  • neurodivergent shopping habits, like pre-determined plans to get in and out of the store as quickly as possible, featuring shiny distractions
  • excessive talking (akin to infodumping or trauma responses)
  • rearranging items in basket
  • going back and forth to specific places
  • moving at a speed faster than most customers
  • stocking up on multiple items most people don’t (e.g. safe foods, clothes, or health/beauty/accessory items); this is a sign of organized retail crime (ORC)
  • “appearing off” or “having something off” about you
  • watching employees closely or being hyper aware of others in the vicinity
  • spending too long in one area

There are many, many more alert signals. The line between neurodivergent traits and actual shoplifter traits is finer than a thin hair strand.

What’s worse is when autistic people experience meltdowns in public and are perceived as violent individuals.

How to identify secret shoppers

Loss prevention associates are often referred to as “secret shoppers”. Unless they’re management, their attire is customer casual. Even more: They could be pretending to shoplift themselves.

You literally never know.

Except…I totally do.

I know, and it’s extremely alarming. You really don’t know who is watching you and when they’re watching you. As a woman, this aspect crept me out beyond repair. Loss prevention legally stalks you on the property.

Pegboard-type aisles

Certain stores have aisles with metal, pegboard-style shelving. If you open your camera app and position the external lens just so, you can gain access to an entire scene on the other side.

This technique, plus just looking through the holes without tech, helps them keep an eye on you. If they lose eye contact, they have to pull back.

The catch: There may be one or more agents on the floor and one watching the cams.

Cap trick

If you put a baseball-style cap on, you can point the bill down while keeping your head up and give the impression that you’re looking down — while you’re actually looking everywhere else.

AP doesn’t want to make eye contact with you, because the presumption is that everyone will remember a face so much more when they make eye contact with it. This is so not neurodivergent-friendly, so you can use it to your advantage.

Aisle endcaps

You know the products at the end of an aisle? They’re called features, but also endcaps. Pay attention to what they look like each time you see them. Loss prevention will rearrange them to gain or keep eyes on you. Some will fix it later, but most won’t.

If you go out of the aisle the same way you came in and you notice the endcap now looks like someone moved the items to clear a path, you were likely being watched.

If you think you keep seeing the same person, you probably are.

They’re dressed like a regular customer, but your gut tells you that they are following you.

You might feel guilty for presuming things, especially as a neurodivergent individual, but stop gaslighting yourself. Your feelings are valid. They probably are following you. Put it to the test.

Go to the restroom, or to the fitting room. Those are neutral spots where they can’t accompany you. Take pictures of your basket or where you set your items before you go in, so you’ll know if someone rummaged through them.

Or go to a random aisle with mostly blank shelves and stim between the shelves. This is a major red flag for AP, and they will be keen to stay on you. Bonus points if you have something small to stim with. Leave the aisle, but stand in a place where you can observe whether they — or someone else — investigates the area you just left.

If you get stopped…

Presuming you did not steal anything, definitely remain calm. Many AP associates are just assholes who will stop anyone, regardless of having all five elements because of market demands — though there is a higher price on internal thefts.

They may ask you to reveal what you’ve stolen, but you’ve stolen nothing. Let them call the cops to prove you’ve stolen nothing. Remain graceful. You’ll be searched, but ultimately…it’s going to look extremely bad on them, because they made a bad stop.

It’s a bad day for AP when they make a bad stop. There is a LOT of legal red tape they have to tiptoe around. This is why they’re taught to fall back if they have any doubt. They have to be 200% sure and confident in their decision.

My experience with being followed

Sometimes, I use this sound magnifier app because I’m hard of hearing and don’t feel completely safe with my surroundings. I went into Walmart Supercenter for clothes, because I didn’t want to go to the laundromat during its busiest hours and needed more sensory-friendly clothes anyway.

It was a long day at work, so I couldn’t mask my autism anymore. I let the stims happen.

I went straight to the women’s athletic wear for leggings, then chose socks and sports bras. I looked at a few other things before going to the men’s graphic tees columns and table. My selections were quick, and I returned to peruse the women’s section.

I noticed I was being followed when I was looking for boyshorts. Thanks to my app and earbud, I picked up the following keywords from a few different people:

  • “suspicious teen”
  • “pile of shirts”
  • “twitchy, might be on drugs”
  • “something off about her”
  • “walking too fast”
  • “keeps popping her fingers”
  • “randomly dancing”
  • “just being really weird”
  • “she could have autism”
  • “sic someone on her”
  • “at least $40 worth of shirts”
  • “getting two of the same shirt, might be same size […] who does that?”

I became extremely aware that, despite training in that store (!!), they definitely had to be describing me.

I went through self-checkout on the grocery side, because it had the smallest line. A customer host who had not been paying much attention to customers prior to me kept walking up near me. I did end up having an issue with the terminal and asked for help. I paid in cash — $80ish worth of sensory-friendly clothes.

On my way out, I saw the person who trained me standing there with a basket. I looked up at him, made eye contact and smiled. “Have a nice day!”

I walked out the door, got in my car, drove home, and cried myself to sleep. I never entered that store again.

AP needs to learn how to ask themselves the same question I did while working in AP:

Is it theft or just neurodiversity?

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