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Autism Mom Diary – Part 3: Shopping with your autistic child

Autism: shopping with your autistic child

Dear Fellow Autism Mum,
Shopping with your autistic child.
This is from one autism soldier to another…

I am writing to let you know that I noticed you in the supermarket today… Am not sure if you saw us – my son and I – but I saw you. I saw you and I saw your child. I wanted to walk up to you and give you a hug or maybe just a fist bump or a salute …yeah, a salute because from one autism soldier to another, a salute should be the standard greeting. I know you’re wondering how I noticed you, what I saw, how I could have seen you – shopping with your autistic child – while juggling my own shopping and my own spectrum boy…

Guarded, directional, with despair….

I noticed how guarded you became when other shoppers drew near you. How quick you were to reach him and redirect him as he tried to stretch out on the ice cream fridge… Those ice cream fridges are so cool so I get why he would want to get in there. I noticed the reticent look that came over your face when other shoppers looked your way and the despair that washed over that same lovely face when your son dissolved into a ginormous (is that a word?) meltdown barely minutes later.

Keep-calm-it’s-only-autism-on-display

I am sorry I had to walk away. Believe me I wanted to stay, to reach out, and to say I understood, but my son was reaching for the eggs. “Mr. A we don’t need eggs!” My voice is large…loud…big. I do not need a speaker. Over the years I have learnt to use it to call my son back to me; to inform those next to me that they should “keep-calm- it’s-only-autism-on-display”, when my son would dissolve into huge meltdowns or tantrums in a public space. That’s what shopping with your autistic child is about – standing the child’s ground…

Angry judgmental looks and comments – and the dilemma of shopping with your autistic child…

Dear Autism Mom, I wanted to tell you – Well Done! For getting out of the house with your son; for attempting that shopping trip. About 4 years ago, (we were 5 years into our diagnosis), I was faced with the dilemma of whether I should start leaving my son at home while I shopped, or continue visiting the supermarket with him; and continue encountering tantrums and meltdowns that inevitably led to angry judgmental looks and comments about indiscipline from fellow shoppers.

You hear everything, see everything, feel everything… literally

I made a choice, which was to continue shopping with my son. I am glad I did. First you need to understand that while shopping may be an exciting outing for many children, it is often not as exciting for autistic children because of that little thing called sensory overload. Imagine going into a supermarket and as you walk in you hear everything, see everything, feel everything… literally. All your senses alive at the same time. You hear the supermarket cart wheels as they squeak, the clang of bottles, the thud as people drop groceries into trolleys, the hundreds of conversations, the click or clang of the till. Everything. You also see the colors and there are many in the supermarket. And all this happens at once. Anyone faced with something like this would dissolve into a puddle on the floor and sometimes that is what autistic kids do.

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If they notice you are not looking, they may just stop…

I’d love to ask you though – ‘How would you know if your child is having a tantrum or a meltdown?’ A tantrum is caused by the denial of something the child wanted. Say for example you say no to them picking something from the shelves. As they cry and throw themselves about on the floor, you will notice them look up at you to see if you are watching them. They may stop or continue based on your reaction. If they notice you are not looking, they may just stop and your shopping will go on. If you give in to their demand, they may stop and you can continue with your shopping.

You may also have noticed me sitting on the floor with my inconsolable child in my arms

A meltdown is in most cases caused by a sensory overload (if you are in a supermarket or some other public area). A meltdown will not stop because you give your child something. The meltdown will however stop when you remove your child from that environment. I lose count of the numerous half-filled and sometimes full trolleys I have left smack in the middle of the supermarket aisle, as I needed to remove my child from there. You may also have noticed me sitting on the floor with my inconsolable child in my arms…yes on the supermarket floor. If you do see me or some other mom, please walk away, give room, and please do not stare. You could ask me for my shopping list and finish the shopping for me; that would be kind. Yes, that is part of shopping with your autistic child…

Fast forward to today and my son is learning to give the cashier money for his purchase and NOT to open the item before paying for it. I know we see a lot of kids eating while walking down supermarket aisles but you cannot do that with an autistic child, because it will be difficult to one day explain why the rules have changed and it may result in a tantrum. Teach them early to wait.

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