It can be difficult to shop with an autistic child.
They may have trouble understanding what is happening around them, they may become overwhelmed by the noise and crowds, or they may have a meltdown in the middle of the store.
Here are some tips to help make shopping with your autistic child easier and ways to create a more autism-friendly shopping experience.
Why is it Difficult to Shop with an Autistic Child?
Autistic children don't see shopping the same as their neurotypical peers. Some difficulties they face include:
For many autistic children, bright lights, loud noises, and strong smells can be overwhelming. A lot is happening around them which can make shopping a difficult and even painful experience.
Crowds and long lines
Large crowds of people can be overwhelming for anyone, but for a child with autism, it can cause a lot of anxiety.
Crowds also create noise which can be difficult for a child with autism to filter out.
Change in routine
Shopping is a deviation from the normal routine which can be difficult for a child with autism to handle. They may become agitated or have a meltdown because of the change in schedule.
Meltdowns are a common occurrence for autistic children. They may happen when a child with autism is overwhelmed, frustrated, or tired. Meltdowns can look different for every child but may include crying, yelling, hitting, or self-injurious behaviors.
Many autistic children experience high levels of anxiety. This may be due to the sensory overload they feel or from knowing that a meltdown is possible. Anxiety can make shopping an even more difficult experience.
Challenges children with autism face in a store
Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) can face several challenges when visiting a store. These challenges can stem from sensory sensitivities, difficulty with social interactions, and the need for routine and predictability. Here are some of the key challenges:
- Sensory Overload: Many children with autism are sensitive to sensory stimuli. Stores can be full of bright lights, loud noises, and strong smells, which can overwhelm these children and lead to distress.
- Difficulty Understanding Social Norms: Social interactions can be challenging for children with autism. They might not understand the social expectations in a store setting, such as waiting in line or interacting with store employees.
- Changes in Routine: Children with autism often rely on routines and predictability. A change in the layout of the store or an unexpected event (like an item being out of stock) can be extremely disruptive for them.
- Trouble with Transitioning: Transitioning from one activity to another can be difficult for children with autism. This can make it hard for them to move from one section of the store to another, or to leave the store when shopping is finished.
- Difficulty with Motor Skills: Some children with autism may have challenges with fine motor skills, making it hard for them to handle small items or money.
Strategies like providing a schedule, practicing and building tolerance, and preparing the child for what to expect can help manage these challenges. Additionally, making retail environments more autism-friendly, such as reducing noise levels and providing quiet spaces, can also be beneficial.
Tips for Shopping with an Autistic Child
By understanding what is difficult for your child during a shopping trip, you can be better prepared to handle any challenges that may come up.
Here are some tips to make shopping with a child with autism easier:
Prepare your Child for the Change in Schedule
The day before the shopping trip , tell your child about your plans. Explain that they will be going shopping and tell them what time you will leave. This will help your child prepare for the change in routine.
Make a Plan with your Child
Before you leave for the store, sit down with your child and explain what will happen. Use words and pictures to help them understand the steps of the trip. This will help reduce anxiety and make the trip more predictable.
Include what will happen once you get home by creating a social story.
For example, say we will get into the car, drive to the store and park in the lot. Once we enter the store we will choose a wagon, collect all of the items on our list and head to the checkout line. Once we pay for the items we will bag them and place them in the car. Once we drive home, we will undo and put away the items and then play a game of your choice.
Applied Pressure Techniques
Applied pressure techniques can help an autistic child with sensory processing disorder. Things like weighted blankets, vests, or stuffed animals can provide deep pressure input which can help calm the nervous system.
Bring along a fidget toy
If your child becomes overwhelmed, having something they love to focus on can help calm them down.
Fidget toys can be a helpful distraction for a child with autism. They may help them focus and stay calm while shopping
Reward them for Good Behavior
If your child does well on the shopping trip, be sure to reward them. This could be a favorite food, toy, or activity.
Rewarding good behavior will help encourage your child to continue following the rules while shopping.
Keep Trips Short
Autistic children can become overwhelmed easily, so it is best to keep trips short. This will help reduce the chances of a meltdown occurring.
Start with two or three items. If you have to make a larger purchase, break it up into multiple trips.
This will help your child stay calm and avoid becoming overwhelmed.
How ABA therapy can help a child go shopping
Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) therapy is a type of therapy that can be beneficial for children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), including when they go shopping. ABA therapy uses positive reinforcement to encourage desirable behaviors and reduce problematic ones. Here's how ABA therapy can assist a child with ASD during a shopping trip:
- Planning and Preparation: ABA therapy helps children with autism to understand and follow routines. Before a shopping trip, parents or caregivers can use ABA techniques to prepare the child for what to expect, such as making a list or discussing the steps involved in shopping.
- Visual Supports: Visual schedules, which are often used in ABA therapy, can be incredibly useful for children with autism. They provide a visual representation of what will happen during the shopping trip, which can help the child understand the sequence of events and reduce anxiety.
- Skill Development: Shopping trips can be used as an opportunity to practice and develop skills. For example, younger children may help gather produce, while older children might learn to compare prices or pay for items. ABA therapy can guide this skill development.
- Behavior Management: ABA therapy can also help manage problematic behaviors that may arise during shopping. This can include using positive reinforcement to encourage calm behavior, or teaching the child strategies to cope with sensory overload.
- Real-World Application: ABA therapy isn't just for the clinic – it can be applied in real-world situations like shopping. This allows children with autism to learn and practice skills in a practical context.
Remember, each child with autism is unique, and what works for one child may not work for another. It's important to tailor strategies to the individual child's needs and abilities.
Shopping with a child with autism can be a difficult and frustrating experience. However, by following these tips, you can make the trip more manageable for both you and your child. Remember to be patient and understanding, and most importantly, have fun!