Grocery shopping and autism do not go well together. Sensory, communication, and self-regulation issues when combined with a trip to an overstimulating store results in one of the most difficult outings parents and their children with autism face.
We have had our ups and downs with grocery shopping, and the down times included truncated lists and abandoned shopping carts. Beth is 5 and we still have to work very hard, but thankfully grocery shopping is currently tolerable. Beth has progressed so much we are using it as a growth experience now, rather than just a mere exercise in survival. I thought I would take the time to share our story, and the phases we have gone through. If you are struggling with grocery shopping on the spectrum, maybe this post will give you hope and/or some new strategies to try.
Phase 1: Screaming Baby
Beth was a fussy baby from 2 weeks on. Her scream in a store would cause people to look in concern and ask if she was okay. I think my husband and visiting family members did most of the grocery shopping in the first few months (maybe even the first year) of Beth’s life. I was so sleep deprived due to Beth’s poor sleeping and her constant begging for breast milk as she tried to sooth her hyped up nervous system, I can remember very little of grocery shopping with her as an infant. This picture sums up what I was dealing with…
Phase 2: Toddler Tango in the Shopping Aisles
When Beth was a toddler we could take her grocery shopping, but it wasn’t easy. She was fussy and wanted to be held a lot.
Hind sight is 20/20, so it all makes sense now. Beth had weak core muscles, low tone, and little body awareness, which made sitting difficult. Also, she was at the tail end of normal when she started to walk and she took a very long time to walk without falling or tiring out. All of this led to frustration for her. She wanted to move herself and sit, but couldn’t. Her physical issues made sitting in the shopping cart difficult and walking while hanging onto the cart impossible. Plus she probably had unrecognized sensory issues. During this phase my husband and I took turns holding Beth and bouncing her in a funny dance-like fashion to keep her calm. It led to strong arms and sore backs, and also helped us survive the shopping trip.
Phase 3: Preschooler Riding in the Shopping Cart: Bribery, Convergence Method, and Other Survival Techniques
And right about the time Beth got the hang of sitting in the cart, the sensory stuff and Beth’s demand for independence really kicked in. This was the toughest phase.
There were screams, tantrums, and a few meltdowns. There were a few episodes where I was bit, kicked, hit, and scratched while she was riding in the shopping cart. I think everything bothered her (lights, sounds of the refrigeration units, the radio, strangers coming up to her, and on and on). If Beth needed something (potty, food, drink), since she was already overwhelmed in the store, her language went down to almost zero and she could not request things. Also, I believe she became more aware of her surroundings and saw things she wanted (snack, toy, etc.), but was so overwhelmed she could not gesture or verbally indicate what she wanted. So instead, she just lashed out in frustration.
This period called for numerous strategies to make shopping tolerable for Beth (and for us), and we tried all of the following at some point:
- Asked the manager to turn down the radio
- Oral Supports/Rewards: chewy tubes, lollypops, mints, snacks from the shopping aisles, a cookie as a reward from the store bakery [Giant Food Stores gives out a cookie for free at the bakery, and we usually end our shopping trip with a cookie there. It is also a great opportunity for Beth to practice saying “thank you” while getting her reward.]
- Sticker as a reward from the cashier (another good opportunity to practice saying “thank you”)
- Fidgets and stickers to occupy Beth in the shopping cart
- Visual schedules and saying over and over “first we shop, then we get in the car”
- Convergence method: I took one cart and Beth and I started on one side of the store, my husband took another cart and started on the other side of the store, and we converged somewhere in the store. I focused on Beth’s shopping skills/tolerance and we got as far as we could, while my husband focused on getting the shopping done as quickly as possible.
- When things were really tough, my husband did the bulk of the shopping on the weekends and Beth and I did smaller shopping trips during the week to practice shopping skills/tolerance.
My one regret is that I did not try a weighted vest during this tough phase. Beth tried a compression vest in therapy and totally freaked out, so I stayed away from them. But she never tried a simple weighted vest. A friend of mine uses a weighted vest for her son while shopping and has great success. I bought Beth a weighted vest recently and to date we have only tried it once in a store that she used to find distressing, and she did great and was not stressed at all. Time will tell if I think it is effective for Beth, but anything is worth a shot when it comes to shopping and autism.
Phase 4: Preschool Driver
At about 4 or so, Beth’s sensory stuff started to calm down some and Beth fell in love with pretend driving in the cars that had shopping carts attached to the back of them. She pretended to drive in the car for a few aisles until she got bored and crawled out, and then I put her in cart seat for the rest of the trip.
One day, as Beth exited the pretend car and I tried to get her into the cart seat, she locked her legs and refused to go into the seat. I spent most of that shopping trip retrieving her as she ran away from the cart. In an effort to get her to stay with me, I told her repeatedly to hold onto the bar of the cart and push. It took a few trips, but soon she got the the hang of it and decided she loved pushing the cart. Shopping trips became a whole lot easier (and slower). Some people say heavy work like pushing a shopping cart is helpful to anxious kiddos. I am not sure that is the reason she liked it, but thank God it worked out so we could still shop.
Phase 5: Kiddo Gets a Shopping List
Beth is 5 now and can usually tolerate a full grocery shopping trip on the weekend. We still use oral rewards, such as the cookie at the bakery. When Beth runs out of her groceries during the week, we do a small trip with a shopping list* I make for her on the iPad app Choiceworks (https://itunes.apple.com/us/app/choiceworks/id486210964?mt=8). I am showing her how to recognize items on a list and retrieve them from the shelves. If it is a good day, she will help me load the food onto the belt, swipe the credit card, and unload some things from the car. Slowly we are inching towards Beth helping me with the shopping and becoming more independent. Here is an example of Beth’s Choiceworks grocery list and a video of her getting an item from the shelf and checking it off:
*I make the shopping list by saving each image I find through a search of the item on Google Images (or occasionally I cannot find a good image on Google Images, so I will take a picture of the item with the iPad camera). I save a Google image onto the iPad by pressing the image and holding my finger on it until a window pops up and asks if I would like to save the image. After saving an image, I type in the written label and then record my voice saying the item.