In ChildServe’s Autism Program, we get to hear about life’s ups and downs from the families we serve. One thing that comes up often is the dreaded trip to the grocery store. For many families, a quick trip to the store is part of a weekly routine. For parents of kids with autism, it can feel overwhelming and full of challenges. While navigating their child’s needs and safety, they must also deal with the comments and opinions of others, which can be frustrating and hurtful.
Parents of kids with autism often report feeling misunderstood or isolated while facing the challenges of the grocery store. Every parent of a child with autism must go above and beyond to teach their child how to interact with a world that can be overwhelming and isolating.
The grocery store can be tricky for many reasons. Kids with autism are often highly sensitive to busy, loud, bright and new environments (the grocery store in a nutshell). They often prefer to follow a strict routine each time they do something; if you take a certain route through the store once, they may be expecting to take the exact route each time. If you told them you’d buy a certain snack, they may not understand if the store no longer carries the product. A child with autism doesn’t have the same coping skills to adjust to changes; they can’t just “get over it” or be easily coaxed into calming down through promises of a later treat. Autism takes parenting into an entirely new arena.
Not every child with autism experiences life exactly as described above. Autism spectrum disorder is hard to pin down. Each child has their own unique set of challenges and gifts.
We’re providing a list of tips below to help parents of kids with autism face trips to the grocery store (or any public place) more confidently. But no matter who you are, we think you can benefit from reading this.
Read about the effort that goes into a task that many of us don’t think twice about. Take the time to understand that these parents, like most others, only want what is best for their children. Pay attention to the fact that while kids with autism learn differently, they’re capable of incredible things. The next time you see a family working through a “meltdown” in public, remember to be gentle and understanding!
Tips for Tackling the Grocery Store
If you’re like many parents of a child with autism, a trip to the grocery store can feel really stressful when you’re first starting out. We want to encourage you to keep going. The best thing you can do for your child is to continue exposing them to new environments. This is how kids learn!
- Pack and prepare: Pack your child’s favorite food and drinks, as they might see other snacks and start to feel hungry in the store. We all do our best when we aren’t hungry! Other items to bring are your child’s toys for reinforcement or distraction. For some children that might be a video game they can play as a reward for expected behavior after you leave the store. For others, having a favorite stuffed animal makes exploring somewhere new a little less overwhelming.
- Prepare your child: Communicate to your child what they may expect at the store – often, the use of visual supports such as video models or pictures is helpful.
- Identify the end: When we feel uncomfortable, it is always helpful to know how long the situation will last. Create a schedule that includes areas of the store you will visit, a written checklist or pictures of items you need to grab or a timer so your child can see time counting down.
- Stay in the here and now: Use simple terms about what your child is seeing, feeling and hearing in the present moment.
- Start small to gain confidence: The first time you go to the store, keep the trip simple and short. Consider how long your child does well in the store, then start even smaller! You want this to be a positive experience for your child. If your child is successful with 5 minutes at the store, have your first trip be 2 minutes. Visit the front of the store, then leave. Next time, go to the entrance, then leave. By building up gradually, your child can become more comfortable with the store environment before teaching them new skills. This will build a routine, positive experiences, and boost your child’s confidence and comfort in the store.
- Motivation: Provide positive experiences and reinforcement at the store. Consider your child’s motivation to go to the grocery store – for some kids that is being able to push the cart, sit in the cart, or pick out a treat. For other kids nothing is motivating about the store, but you can create motivation for meeting a milestone – they may be able to have a special reward for spending 10 minutes in the store.
- Reinforcements: Give your expectations about grocery store behavior. A timer works great to incorporate small goals into the grocery store trip. Can they earn a small reward if they’ve kept expected behavior for 5 minutes? What will happen if they leave the store after they practiced expected behavior? Choose appropriate rewards to help your child continue building expected behavior.
- Teach others: Plan out what your response will be to anyone who makes a comment to your family. Many people aren’t aware of how difficult it can be for kids with autism to take a trip to the store. If you’re feeling up for it, this is a great time to advocate for your child and teach others about autism. Some families even make small business cards to quickly and quietly inform others what’s going on. This would allow you to raise awareness while you keep your full attention on your child.
Remember, you aren’t alone, and there are many parents in the same position as you. Reach out to them or join a support group. It’s good to connect with others. Together, we can do more for our children and community than we can alone.
ChildServe improves the health and well-being of 5,700 children each year through specialized clinical, home, and community-based programs and services. We serve children with developmental delays, disabilities, injuries, and other special healthcare needs.