Waitrose has apologised to an autistic boy after 'cruel' staff at a store 'made fun of his mannerisms and looks' because he was wearing a wig to help him cope with being in public.
Paul Rowles, 12, had dressed as his favourite video game character to go shopping at the Chantry Centre in Andover last Monday when his mother claims she overheard staff joking about her child's appearance.
Nicole Rowles, 34, said her son uses costumes to help make himself more comfortable when out in public due to his autism and low self-confidence.
However, she claims the wig he was wearing made him a target for staff at the store, who allegedly made 'cruel' jokes about his 'mannerisms and looks'.
Waitrose has since apologised to the family and launched an investigation into the incident.
Paul Rowles, 12, had dressed as his favourite video game character to go shopping at the Chantry Centre in Andover last Monday when his mother claims she overheard staff joking about her child's appearance. Pictured: Paul in his wig
Nicole Rowles (pictured with Paul), 34, said her son uses costumes to help make himself more comfortable when out in public due to his autism and low self-confidence
The mother-of-four shared the experience to social media, posting a photograph of Paul in the wig alongside an explanation of the shocking events.
She said: 'Their obvious mockery was hard to ignore, they were laughing and making comments of someone they could both see.
'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.
'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!''
Mrs Rowles said she gave the security guard and Waitrose employee an education on hidden disabilities, before a third staff member who seemed 'embarrassed' by her colleagues came over to speak to her.
The mother-of-four claims the wig Paul was wearing made him a target for staff at the store, who allegedly made 'cruel' jokes about his 'mannerisms and looks'
Waitrose has since apologised to the family and launched an investigation into the incident. Pictured: Paul in the wig
She added: '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.
'Once I got to the bus station, I called my husband and again I broke down crying thinking I was safe to do so as my kids went ahead onto the bus already.
'Then I felt a strong hug and it was my son! He said 'It's okay mum it doesn't matter what people say'.
How does autism impact the development of children?
Autism in a lifelong developmental disability which affects how people communicate and interact with others.
Around one in 100 people are on the autism spectrum, with around 700,000 autistic adults and children in the UK.
Children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) develop at a different rate to others, and do not develop skills in the same order as other children.
Those with ASD can find it difficult topay attention to others, communicate, understand other perspectives, and see the big picture.
These challenges can affect a child's learning and development.
'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.
'They mocked my boy when he was trying to just cope.'
Social media users were outraged by the post, which has been shared thousands of times.
Lynne Groves said: '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.'
Andrea Rookes added: 'What world do we live in in which working age adults have any excuse in mocking a child?'
Mrs Rowles said she was later contacted with a 'rehearsed' apology and offered a £100 gift card.
However, she says the incident has had a deep impact on her family.
The sales assistant said: 'Paul is very empowered by everyone's support and wants to see change, but he is still affected by this.
'Paul has faced bullies all of his life, not only because of his additional needs, but Paul has received a lot of hate over his weight and now his sexuality.
'Despite being bullied, he has always remained kind, caring and loving towards anyone.
'People need to realise that the words they speak don't just have the instant impact.
'They have long term effects and they can be the straw that breaks the camel's back following previous events as it was in our case.
'This goes so much deeper than just public discrimination.
'To find out that 'the partners' receive no training whatsoever in regards to hidden disabilities is just outrageous.
'What we would like to come from this is changes in policies, a personal apology to my children and adequate compensation as well as letting the public know what changes they will be implementing in the future to prevent this kind of behaviour.'
A spokeswoman for Waitrose said today: '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.'