Autism and Grocery Shopping: 8 Steps To A Smoother Trip

The grocery store trip: a tough one with any child, but especially a child with autism.  Many parents dread this experience, knowing that constant negotiation, tantrums, and judgmental eyes await.  While, unfortunately, I can’t control the intolerance of others, I can give you some tips to help make it a smoother trip.

My biggest tip would be to prepare.  You know best what is difficult about this experience for you and your child.  Take a few minutes to outline what you would like to see go better and plan accordingly.

1. Prepare for the transition

We all know transitions can be difficult for children with autism.  A great way to combat this is to prepare for it.  You can do this by:

  • Telling your child ahead of time that you are going to the grocery store and reminding them again a few times before going.
  • Use visuals or verbal reminders of what to expect after the grocery store.  If you already use a visual schedule with your child, make sure to add this to it.
  • Visuals while you are there might help, as well, so your child can anticipate the end of this excursion.

2. Manage expectations

Tell your child what you expect of them at the store.  Be specific here. “Good behavior” is not a thing. Think about what that means to you, and tell your child those specific behaviors instead.  For instance, staying seated in the cart, using a quiet voice, keeping hands off of the items on the shelves, etc.

3. Bring reinforcers

Reinforcers are good things we pair with desired behavior.  You want to deliver reinforcers following behavior you want to see more of.  Let your child know that if they follow those rules, they will get to have (insert whatever reinforcer you bring here).  This might include things like a favorite snack, toy, watching a video on your phone, or a trip to the park.  One important thing here about reinforcement is that it should happen following the desired behavior, not before.  You may need to reinforce throughout the trip if waiting until the end is too long. Just make sure this is not following the inappropriate behavior, such as tantrums.

4. Bring something to entertain

We do want to save reinforcement for the end, but I understand that sometimes you just need to keep your child happy so you can get the milk and broccoli.  To help with this, I would suggest bringing something to entertain your child that is different from the reinforcer.  This might be an activity book, some juice, or a toy.  Think about something that will entertain them, but not be too rewarding (we want to save those things for the reinforcers).

5. Get them involved

This goes along with keeping your child entertained.  Depending on your child’s skill set, you may be able to:

  • Give them a list of things to find at the store.  This may be items you need or more of a treasure hunt.
  • Give your child his or her own list to check off.
  • Make a game of it.
  • If your child likes helping in the kitchen, you can take this a few steps further by having them plan something they’d like to make ahead of time and planning the groceries for that meal/dessert.

6. Avoid favorite aisles until the end

If you know your child loves ice cream and always begs for it when you are there, save this aisle for the end.  If you do all of the good stuff first, there is nothing to look forward to and therefore less to motivate. Maybe the ice cream could be the reinforcer to take home.

7. Shorter trips

If going to the store with your child is really difficult for you, it is likely a rough experience for your child, as well.  I would try starting with shorter trips to make this successful for both of you.  I realize it might not be convenient to split your shopping into several days, but I would take a few successful trips over 1 terrible one anytime. As it gets better, you can start increasing the length of the trips.

8. Practice skills at home

If staying with you or walking are big struggles at the grocery store, I would work on these things at home or in an easier environment first.  Practice is key here.

I hope you find these tips helpful.  And on those really tough days when you get all of the way home and realize that you forgot to get the eggs, try to think of it as another opportunity to practice.