Shopping for some people is enjoyable, fun, and in some cases, a form of stress relief. Going to the shop to buy groceries, clothes or just to window shop is like a nightmare for some parents/carers.

I remember when our son was young, for me, going to the local shop with him even to buy a few items was not something I looked forward to because I came home stressed and tired more than when we left the house to go to the shop. I used to think he hated the shops in the area, so I would drive to other shops in other communities but that didn’t help. Then I wondered what the problem was, why did he cry so much everytime we were in the shops, I mean, children like going to the shops, right? Why not mine?

A Speech and Language Therapist explained to me how shopping can be a stressful experience for an autistic child and gave me some of the tips which helped me years ago and I’ll be sharing them in this blog. It’s great to mention that my son enjoys shopping now and can do it independently like any other teenager.

If you’re a parent/carer who is struggling with shopping with your autistic child, here are some strategies that could make the experience less stressful.

Prepare the child: Before you head out the door to go to the shop, you already know where you’re going, what you’re going to do there and roughly how long it may take you. Your child on the other hand, has no idea about your plan. Make a visual schedule with pictures to explain where you’re going, what you will buy in the shop and that you’ll come home when you’re done. But for a child who can read, write out your plan and explain. A lot of the anxiety and stress is due to the fear of the unknown.

Make a list: I know it can be fun walking around the shop from aisle to aisle to see what’s on sale, but trying to get your child to get used to shopping and enjoying it is not the best time to be walking aimlessly around the shop. Make a list of what you want to buy and stick to that list so as to avoid spending too much time than necessary in the shop. As time goes on, and your child starts to relax better in the shop, you can then add window shopping to that list.

Distraction: It is ok for your child to bring his/her favourite toy (a small one) to help to distract your child from all the noise and busyness in the shop.

Get your child involved: As your child starts to enjoy the experience a bit more, if it’s possible, get the child involved. Let him/her hold an item or bring an item down from the shelf, pretend you’ve lost your way and ask your child where do you go to get, for example, milk. Make shopping time like a fun game of “where do we go next?”. This may take time but like every thing in life, in order to get better at doing something, you’ve got to practice regularly.

Sensory issues: shops can be noisy, busy with people, too much lighting, lots of signage, etc. For an individual with sensory issues ( this can affect people who are not autistic), all these will lead to sensory overload which may cause distress and crying or tantrums.

A great initiative that was introduced by a grocery shop LIDL in Ireland, is the ‘Autism Friendly Evening ‘.

“From 2 April every Tuesday between 6-8pm, the following changes will be in place:

  • No in-store annoucements
  • Reduced lighting
  • No music
  • Priority queuing for customers dealing with autism as well as extra assistance upon request
  • Till scan sounds lowered
  • Autism assistance dogs welcome

In-store maps will also be made available for children with autism, so as to plan and organise their shopping trips, which will add structure and routine to help them deal with what they may otherwise see as a chaotic experience” ( lidl.ie).

One can only hope that more supermarkets and shopping centres take a leaf out ot LIDL’s book by making shopping less stressful for autistic individuals and parents/carers.

In conclusion, when you go shopping with your autistic child, if it gets too stressful, leave it off and try again another time or day but try not to loose your cool!

P.S- I would love to hear your views/ experiences so don’t hesitate to send in your comments or send me an email on lizosagie@gmail.