My son has autism. His name is Arthur and he is 13 years old.
I have found over the years that my life shrinks and expands in direct proportion to what kind of day my child is having. And nothing causes my world to contract more drastically than a disastrous outing to the grocery store with Arthur. The vibrant colors and overwhelming choice in the mustard section alone can be overwhelming for me. Imagine how the cereal aisle must be for Arthur.
When Arthur is in sensory overload, confused or frustrated, he becomes dysregulated. This can translate into a screaming, pinching himself or others, bolting toward exits, or knocking over displays. How do other shoppers tell the difference between a child with a disability behaving in a way that is consistent with his or her diagnosis or an out-of-control bratty kid with lazy parents? They can’t and I experience the disapproving glares and the “tsk-tsk” to prove it.
I’ve abandoned shopping baskets filled with groceries, lurched after propelled carts, apologized for watermelons that served as bowling balls and quietly placed half-eaten candy bars on the conveyor belt.
I do the best I can to balance not disrupting other shoppers and giving Arthur an opportunity to be a part of his community. I realize there are social norms and rules to be followed and for this reason we’ve given up other public outings. Waiting in line at the bank, going to the mall, and most restaurants are not currently a part of our routine.
So why bring him to the grocery store? A trip to the market was a skill and potential pleasure I felt he needed and deserved for his future. The common routine, interacting with others, the basic necessity of buying food and the simple pleasure of selecting what you plan to eat is something I have prioritized as vital for my son.
Thus began our efforts for a successful trip to the grocery store. With the help of a behavioral consultant, we broke the complex task into small steps and identified all aspects that would contribute to accomplishment in the aisles.
Here is a short video of our recent trip to the store:
Strategies for a successful trip to the grocery store:
Safety. When possible, I use our disability parking placard and park close to the market in case he has a melt-down and runs from the store to the car. Like so many parents of children with autism, I wear sneakers and a backpack so my hands are free, and keep my car keys handy.
Short and sweet. We keep our grocery list and time spent at the store brief. For the first several months, we started with just a few items on our shopping list and have now built up to 10 or 15 items.
Dry erase board. We write down the grocery list in the order items are displayed in the store. We review this list together before entering the store. This means saving my longer grocery list for another visit without my son.
Predictable. Only buy those items on the list. This can be challenging when you realize you forgot to write Mac and Cheese. That one unexpected item can actually be upsetting if your child is rigid and inflexible. On the flip side, I have also found those unexpected items are an opportunity to teach flexibility—that life includes unforeseen events in the form of an unanticipated box of Mac and Cheese.
Involve. Arthur is expected to push the cart, select and put the items in the cart, place contents on the conveyor belt, and stay near the cashier until the groceries are bagged.
Go often. Taking Arthur to the grocery store once or twice each week is now part of his routine and something he expects and even looks forward to.
Visual and verbal prompts. A trip to the grocery store always includes the following prompts; stop, stay by me, wait in line, and wait.
Reward and celebrate. As Arthur mastered the basic skills of shopping, he was rewarded along the way with prizes and lots of praise. Currently Arthur loves Butterfinger candy bars, which is always the last item listed on our grocery list. Keeping his “eyes on the prize” encourages him to stay motivated, attentive and happy.
Get back on the horse. Not all trips to the grocery store end in triumph and when things don’t go so well, I remind myself that success emerged from routine and persistence. Trying again (and again and again) is an important part of the learning process for Arthur.
Because Arthur acts differently and does not always follow the social norms, it’s as if he holds a mirror up to humanity. I watch as he brings out the very best (and sometimes the worst) in people. A delightful outcome has been the kindness and patience I see others give to my son. Better than sympathy or tolerance is the sincere desire to better understand autism, my son’s needs, and his fundamental role in our society.
And a big shout-out to the good folks at my neighborhood Safeway on 23rd and Madison in Seattle.