Trips to the shops can be stressful for autistic adults and children. Stress can affect behaviour and can have a profound effect on a person’s ability to do day-to-day activities like shopping. Frustration or anxiety can be caused by not knowing why we need to shop or what will happen when shopping, and a person can be overwhelmed by sensory experiences at the shops.

Watch a short film from our TMI campaign which shows you what being in a shopping centre can feel like to some autistic people.

Warning: this film may trigger sensory overload.

Why we shop

It can be very hard for some autistic people to understand the need to go to the shops. They may not realise that we all have to shop. This can lead to frustration and stress which may be shown through behavioural difficulties. Some may not understand that a visit to the shops has an end point.

It may also be difficult to understand why we do certain activities when we are out shopping. For example, why do we try on different clothes or shoes in some shops and not in others?

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.

What you can do

You could reduce how often a shopping trip is needed by shopping online and by measuring feet at home. Clarks, Happy Little Soles, JD Williams, Padders, Start-rite and Wynsors offer foot-measuring guides and gadgets.

You can prepare for a shopping trip by:

  • showing the person photos of the shop you are going to
  • adding a symbol to their daily timetable
  • sharing with them a book about shopping, eg Let's go shopping, Let’s go to the supermarket, Out and about at the supermarket
  • using a social story about a specific issue (eg about why it’s ok to try on different clothes in the changing rooms at a shop but not anywhere else, or that it’s not ok to eat the food before buying it), or about shopping in general.

Sometimes we go to the supermarket. My mum or dad may go with me. We go to the supermarket to buy food. My mum or dad knows what food we need. Before we leave the supermarket we will go to the checkout. The checkout is important. This is where we give the cashier money. The money pays for the food.

Find out more about social stories and visual supports.

Routine

If someone associates going to a particular shop with a particular route, try to stick to that route. If there is a reason why you will need to go a different way, explain that in advance. 

Read more about routines.

When shopping

Sequencing

Some people have difficulty grasping the sequence of events or understanding that a shopping trip will end. Here are things you could try.

  • Create a visual sequence of the shopping task that the person can refer to during the trip. This could be quite detailed, or could show a ‘now’ picture (the shop) and a ‘next’ picture (the activity you’ll do after that, or the place you’ll be). The sequence could be printed out or on a tablet or smartphone.
  • Provide a timer so the person can see how much longer they will be in the shop.

Find out more about sequencingvisual supports and behaviour.

Stress and boredom

Here are some ideas for tackling stress and boredom.

  • Make a written or visual or shopping list, or use a shopping list app, to help to keep the person involved and on task.
  • Take a comforter, toy or fidget object.
  • Use their interests, eg ask them to count how many pictures of dinosaurs they can see in the shop.

Awareness of danger

If they find the environment difficult, an autistic child or adult may run out of the shop. Some will not have an awareness of potential hazards such as those in a busy car park.

You could provide a card that the person can show you when they are finding the situation difficult to cope with, or a stress scale, such as a traffic light system, to help them to tell you how they are feeling.

You could use a social story to try to explain the dangers of running off, and apply for a Blue Badge so that you can park nearer the entrance.

Some parents might use equipment to warn them when their child has run off. They might also provide the person they’re with with autism alert cards or identity tags.

Find out more about and road safety and visual supports.

Sensory factors

Many people on the autism spectrum have difficulty processing everyday sensory information. They may experience high sensitivity or low sensitivity, or both, in any of the sensory areas.

Sensory experiences when shopping

Sounds

Autistic people can have difficulty filtering out what other people may be able to ignore as background noise, such as people talking, tills beeping, babies crying. This can be unbearable for some. Some noises, like tannoy announcements, are sudden, loud and unpredictable.

Smells

Autistic people may become overwhelmed with smells. Certain areas of the shop might cause them to get upset. Think about how overwhelming the scents of lots of different perfumes are when you are near a perfume counter - this could be the experience an autistic person is having in any shop.

Visual

Fluorescent, flickering lights or reflecting light may hurt an autistic person’s eyes or mesmerise them. There are many different objects to focus on in a shop and changing patterns appear in rows or on shelves. An autistic person can have difficulty focusing on only one or two objects and may feel overwhelmed by this complex environment, experiencing 'visual overload'.

Touch

If someone is very sensitive to touch, it can make it very hard to try on new clothes or shoes.

Personal space

It can become confusing and frightening for an autistic person to be in a crowded place such as a busy supermarket, shopping centre or department store

What you can do

You could contact larger shops and shopping centres to find out if they have quiet hours, larger changing rooms, personal shoppers or other services that might make things easier.

You could try to reduce sensory overload by offering a peaked cap to help to shield eyes from lights, earmuffs or ear defenders, earplugs or headphones.

Find out more about autism and the senses, and the Marks and Spencer Easy Dressing school uniform range

After the shopping trip

An autistic person may need some calm time after the over-stimulation of shopping. They may need to wind down in the car or the house afterwards. Give them time for this before asking them to do anything or go anywhere else that may increase stress levels again.

Read our behaviour top tips.

Last reviewed May 2017