Shopping is a fundamental part of our society. People often shop, in one form or another, on a daily basis. Whether you’re filling your car up with gas, picking up groceries for dinner or buying a new outfit online, we rely on readily available shopping to meet our needs. It’s so much a part of our everyday life, people often take shopping for granted. This, however, isn’t the case for a child with autism, or that child’s parents.
Shopping, what many people often take for granted as an everyday part of life, can be one of the most frightening and strange experiences for someone with autism spectrum disorder.
The factors which contribute to such an overwhelming experience are vast, and the ways in which people with autism experience those factors are even vaster. However, there are some common reasons to consider as to why an outing to the store may be so stressful to your child with autism, as well as common ways to prepare for such outings. We here at LakiKid are always dedicated to helping families similar to ours, so we hope this article helps!
To begin, consider sensory issues.
Heading into any public area can mean facing sensory overload for a child with autism spectrum disorder. While the unfamiliarity of a new place and the sensory inputs it has to offer can often be exciting for neurotypical people, it has the opposite effect for children with autism. All of those sensory inputs can flood the child’s mind, making it extremely difficult for him or her to remain calm and in the public area. Stores and shopping centers are potentially some of the worst public spaces for overwhelming sensory inputs as well.
To begin with, many stores are typically crowded. Children with autism can struggle with personal space issues and become overwhelmed with large crowds, according to The National Autistic Society. This, in part, has to do with the sensory inputs that are associated with gatherings of people, including sight, smell, sound and touch. Seeing all of the people, breathing in people’s different scents, hearing them talk amongst each other, even brushing up against the child as they walk past. That’s a lot to take in simply from other customers. But, which The National Autistic Society page on shopping suggests, these four senses are bombarded by more than just other customers. For example:
Along with the sight of other people, the sight of all the products can be overwhelming. Harsh and unpredictable lighting can also be a sight issue when it comes to shopping. Many stores use bright, fluorescent lights.
Think of all the other smells which accompany the act of shopping, other than smells from customers. If you’re at a grocery store, there are an array of food smells. Say you’re at the mall, consider all the different perfumes and body sprays.
Sounds can be extremely unpredictable and overwhelming when it comes to shopping. For instance, when someone begins speaking over an intercom. There’s often no forewarning of this event, and it tends to be quite loud, as the announcement is made over speakers throughout the store. And that’s just one sound. Add in the beeping of cash registers, the scraping and shuffling of employees moving products, items falling to the floor, and countless other background sounds, and it can become a cacophony of overwhelming sounds for your child.
When it comes to touch, the personal space issue is a big one. But sensory input through touch can be difficult when shopping for certain items also, such as clothes. The unfamiliarity of new clothes and fabrics can be difficult for children with autism spectrum disorder.
For a better understanding of a how a child with autism may experience an outing to the mall, you can watch this video from The National Autistic Society’s Too Much Information campaign. This is merely one possible representation of how a child with autism might experience a trip to the mall. Warning: the video may cause sensory overload.
This is just a small sample of sensory inputs associated with shopping. As well as a small sample of how children with autism may be affected by these sensory inputs. No child on the spectrum is the same, and thus triggers and reactions won’t be the same. Just as results may vary when it comes to sensory issues, so too will they as we move forward into discussing nonsensory issues.
There are other reasons why shopping may be difficult for a child with autism. Many people understand that shopping is a means of acquiring goods and services we need to live our lives, such as food and clothing. However, this may not be clear to a child on the autism spectrum.
One example The National Autistic Society suggests is difficulty understanding certain activities related to shopping, such as trying on clothes. Even further, the article suggests that “others may find it difficult to understand why they have been told not to take their clothes off when they are not at home but then are expected to when they are in a department store fitting room. Some may find it difficult to understand why people are trying to get them to try on clothes or shoes that do not belong to them.” Children with autism spectrum disorder often benefit from adhering to learned social rules, so activities which conflict with existing rules, such as trying on clothes at a store, may be quite confusing at first.
And that’s simply one example of an existing social rule your child may come into conflict with while shopping. However, being prepared to explain why the rules seem to conflict and addressing the new situation can help. But what else can you do to prepare for the sensory and nonsensory issues that may arise while shopping?
It’s important to help familiarize your child with the store beforehand, as best you can. Showing the child photos, a video or a virtual tour is a great way to help them better understand what they will be walking into. These things aren’t always available on a store’s website, so it may require some recon work ahead of time. Taking your own photos can be as beneficial as looking at company photos, if not more, since you know your child best.
Schedule and routine
If your child sticks to a daily schedule, make sure to add the trip to his or her schedule ahead of time. This way, children have time to prepare for themselves and they aren’t surprised by the outing. It’s also important to stick to any pre-established routines related to shopping, whenever possible.
Ease into it
As always, it’s important for children with autism to ease into change or new experiences. Starting with a short trip to a store to get one or two items, before going for longer trips, can help children with autism spectrum disorder familiarize themselves with the space.
Some stores offer services to help make a shopping experience easier for someone with autism spectrum disorder. Call ahead to find what services, if any, are offered at a store you plan on attending.
Schedule and routine
Sticking to schedules and routines is just as important while shopping as it is while preparing to attend a store. It can be beneficial to give your child a maximum amount of time they will have to be in the store. Make sure to allow yourself ample time to complete any tasks, that way you don’t find yourself cutting it too close.
Avoiding incidents 100 percent of the time is impossible, not to mention an unreasonable expectation to set for yourself as a parent. Having a favorite toy or comfort item on hand can not only help distract a child from a stressful environment, but it can help calm the child if and when that environment becomes too much to handle. Toys, such as our marble maze finger fidget, and comfort items, such as our weighted bulldog or fuzzy turtle, are perfect for distracting children with autism from an environment overloaded with sensory inputs. Along with a favorite toy, items such as noise cancelling headphones or a hat can help with background noise and light.
Being aware of potential dangers could mean the difference between a successful trip to the store and disaster. Parking lots are just as cluttered and confusing as the inside of the store, which can be extremely frightening when it comes to a child with autism running out of a store to escape sensory overload. There are potential dangers within stores as well, just think of all the potential threats associated with a hardware store. Specific hazards and the severity of danger they impose will vary depending on what type of store you’re visiting, so be vigilant.
You may consider planning a favorite activity, to take place after the shopping excursion. Seeing this on a schedule ahead of time, as well as being reminded during the trip, could help give your child something to look forward to. Thus helping them distract themselves from the current environment.
It may be that, instead of a favorite activity, your child needs time to calm down and rest after a trip to the store. This is okay too.
These are simply tips, which may work better for some than others. All children are unique. These tips are meant to help you discover what works best for you and your child. Just as every kid is unique, every kid brings good luck.
Feel free to contact LakiKid with any questions or comments. We’re here to support families with members who have autism spectrum disorder, just as our family!