As the manager at ChildServe’s Autism Program, I 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. Most parents of kids with autism have been cut by sharp words from a fellow shopper who assumes that their child is being a “brat” or that there’s something lacking in their parenting skills.

These labels couldn’t be further from the truth. 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 (so, 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 the way I described above. Autism spectrum disorder is hard to pin down. Each child has their own unique set of challenges and gifts.

I’m 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, I 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!

The Autism Awareness logo is a puzzle piece. As you see it around during Autism Awareness month and throughout the year, I hope it reminds you that each child and adult has purpose and meaning. Help us teach the world that there are no spare pieces.

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. I want to encourage you to keep going. The best thing you can do for your child is 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 good behavior after you leave the store. For others, having a favorite stuffed animal makes exploring somewhere new a little less overwhelming.
  • Prepare your child with stories: Let them know what to expect by talking through the whole experience ahead of time. Use simple terms and small lists they can check off verbally. Use pictures if possible.
  • Start small: The first time you go to the store, keep the trip simple and short. You want this to be a positive experience for your child. Visit the front of the store, then leave. Next time, go into the entrance, then leave. By building up gradually, your child can become more comfortable with the store environment before also teaching them new skills.
  • Reinforcements: Give your expectations about good behavior – how do we behave in a grocery store? A timer works great to incorporate small goals into the grocery store trip. Can they earn a small reward if they’ve kept good behavior for 5 minutes? What will happen if they leave the store after they had good behavior? Choose appropriate rewards to help your child continue building good 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.

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ChildServe improves the health and well-being of nearly 4,500 children each year through specialized clinical, home, and community-based programs and services. We serve children with developmental delays, disabilities, acquired injuries, and other special healthcare needs.

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