Updated June 28, 2014.
Autism and supermarkets just don't mix. Autistic behaviors can make a simple marketing trip into a major life event.
Why are errands so tough?
Kids with autism, in general, have sensory issues that make modern big box stores extremely difficult to tolerate. Many find bright lights and colors, loud voices and unexpected events to be physically painful. Some, on the other hand, crave physical movement and need to make noises in order to calm themselves.
What does this mean for the parent trying desperately to fill a cart, pay, and get out without a scene? On the one hand, it may mean strolling the aisles with a child who is completely overwhelmed and bawling. On the other hand, it may mean chasing a child who needs to keep moving, or who is anxiously insisting on getting to a particular goal (or out the door).
The good news is that Stop and Shop and Walmart are only a small part of our world. The bad news is that, like it or not, you have to buy groceries, shampoo, and the occasional pair of socks -- and you may not have access to a sitter when you have the time to shop.
So... when you do have to make that trip with your autistic child, how do you make it work? Here are some top tips:
Know what you're buying, and don't dally. It's fun to shop around for specials or chat with a friend you've just run into, but now is not the right time. Have your list, know where you're going, and keep the chatting to a minimum.
Keep your shopping to one store at a time.
Granted that it's handier to complete all your errands in one trip, it's much harder for your child with autism. Yes, he may be able to make it through the grocery store, but chances are he'll find it increasingly difficult to manage the next stop and the next.
Prepare your child with autism for the experience. Previewing (sometimes called a social story) is a simple technique, but it can work wonders with a child who is old enough to understand and think ahead with you. To create a preview:
- Determine the 6-8 things you will be doing during your typical grocery shopping trip. Be sure to include parking, sitting in the basket (if applicable), and checking out.
- Look online for pictures of those things in a grocery store (ideally your store, but most stores are physically similar).
- Take your own photos of anything that is important in your own local setting (e.g., taking an elevator from an underground garage, saying "hi" to the manager, etc.)
- Organize your photos in chronological order and add a short sentence or two to describe them. For example, a photo of the dairy aisle might say "We choose milk, eggs, and yogurt. We put the milk, eggs, and yogurt in the cart."
- Add descriptions of expected behaviors (your child's or yours). For example, "Mom helps Billy sit in the seat," or "Billy helps choose a special marketing cart."
- Put your photos and captions together into a booklet or set of flash cards, and share them with your child. Read them together as a story book. Recite the order at breakfast. Ideally, within a few weeks, your child will have memorized the story and be able to tell YOU what to expect.
- Bring the book along when you go to the store, and remind your child, at each step, what to expect.
Give Your Child an Earned Reward. OK, yes, it's a lot like a bribe -- bu think of it as a positive consequence. When he's gone through the store and done a great job, what experience can he look forward to? For many children with autism, it's something very simple: a favorite video, or a chance to visit a favorite spot on the way home.
Toughen Up Your Skin. The reality is that, despite your best efforts, there will be times when your child with autism will melt down in public. If you are likely to melt down along with him -- or fall apart when you get stares from fellow patrons -- your day to day life is going to be very difficult indeed. Whatever it takes, you need to find a quiet and accepting place within yourself where you can find the strength to patiently and calmly handle the unexpected.