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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.

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.

How to do shopping with your autistic child
– My supermarket/shopping survival strategy

I have over time developed my supermarket/shopping survival strategy. Want to hear it as you may find something you could pick up?

  1. Talk to your child while at home about what you intend to do. Tell them what you will buy and what you will see.
  2. Tell your child to inform you in whatever way they communicate that they are starting to feel overwhelmed. Be ready to honor that by leaving immediately. Yes I know you really wanted to get that milk but coming back later or sending someone later is a better price to pay than a meltdown. My son is non-verbal so when he starts pointing to or pulling me towards the exit door we leave. It is never that serious…
  3. Have a list for shopping with your autistic child. Do not random shop
  4. Involve your child in the shopping. Ask them to put things in the trolley for you. Speak to them. Although my son is non-verbal, he has perfect hearing and follows instructions perfectly so he gets involved. I also get to learn what he likes this way. If I say pick a vegetable and he brings me capsicums then you bet our food will have hoho everyday 
  5. Discuss what they can have as a treat before hand and be clear about it. Do not change your mind unless you are teaching them about choice. If we agree that my son will have a bar of chocolate and he reaches for the ice cream, then we have a mini lesson right there about choosing. I say clearly that he can only have one. He can choose but something must go back onto the shelves. We once had bread, milk, eggs and his ice cream and he reached for chocolate. I said something must go back and he took the basket from me and returned the bread, milk and eggs  Yeah in-between the laughter, I knew the lesson on choice was well understood. We returned the ice cream and picked up everything else.
  6. Know that it is ok to walk out and leave your cart there. If you see an attendant and can communicate your apology for leaving the half filled cart, do, but do not feel pressured to do it. Your child is top priority.
  7. Know that venturing out into public spaces even with the threat of tantrums and meltdowns is important for your child’s social development. Autistic children grow up into teens then adults. You want them to know how to behave in that environment.
  8. Everything is an opportunity for learning. While shopping with your autistic child, mention things by name as you put them into your trolley or basket. Count and sing. Speak to your child. Teach them how to relate to other people. Like when you hear me say to my son that no he cannot take the tomatoes out of the nice man’s basket. We can get ours. Then lead him in a bagging and weighing of tomatoes exercise. See?
  9. Affirm your child. Often. A lot!!! He puts the eggs in the trolley and I say good job being gentle with the eggs. He picks the exact number of milk packets I asked and I say well done on your counting skills.
  10. IGNORE other shoppers. Unless your child is in their personal space that is. Learn to see only your child and what the purpose of your shopping trip is. If you look at other people, you will see them glance at each other with raised eyebrows, smirks, angry looks and you may catch their angry words. And as we now know, what matters most is not what they think but the focus on your child and what is best for them.
  11. Teach them to wait in line. This is working for me in supermarkets and other shops but is still work in progress in other places. I keep repeating “Let’s wait our turn’, I do not care that I sound like a broken record. BUT if you do hear me and let me cut in front of you, I would salute you. Literally!

IT WILL GET BETTER and one day shopping may just be a fun activity and a privilege that you can use as a consequence for misbehavior….. You what? Broke the glass? No shopping for you.

Read other AUTISM MOM DIARY articles by Jaki Mathaga

Jaki Mathaga is mom to a 10 year old boy on the Autism Spectrum. She heads a Corporate Non-Profit Organization by day and uses the balance of her time doing advocacy for autism. She is President of the Kenya Autism Alliance, a parent led and managed network of Kenyan parents of Autistic Children, Professionals in the Autism field and Caregivers of Autistic children. Twitter @Kenya_Autism

She is also a Fellow of the Vital Voices Leadership Program. An organization that supports women leaders worldwide. jmathaga@gmail.com


BLN Note: “Autistic disorder (also called autism; more recently described as ‘mindblindedness’) is a neurological and developmental disorder that usually appears during the first three years of life.” (http://www.alutfriends.org/)
“Autism is a neurodevelopmental disorder characterized by impaired social interaction, verbal and non-verbal communication, and restricted and repetitive behavior. Parents usually notice signs in the first two years of their child’s life.” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Autism)


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