Trips to the shops can be stressful experiences for your child with autism and the rest of your family. This section provides you with some strategies to help reduce some of the difficulties.
Possible triggers at the shops
Children with an autistic spectrum disorder (ASD) can have difficulties processing the different sensations we all experience in the environment on a daily basis. This can be because children on the spectrum can either be hyposensitive (under sensitive) to sensory input in the environment, or hypersensitive (over sensitive) (for further information please refer to our 'Sensory world' information sheet at the bottom of this page). This in turn can lead to behavioural difficulties. Researchers such as Gail Gillingham have suggested that behaviour such as 'flapping', 'twirling' etc may help produce endorphins to calm children down, or in the case of tantrums, head banging etc, to overload the system, resulting in a 'shut down' (Gillingham 1995). It may also be that the child is trying to escape from what they consider to be a confusing or stressful situation and they are trying to ask for help. Below are some suggestions as to why a child may have particular difficulty whilst shopping. It is by no means an exhaustive list.
Children with an ASD can have difficulty filtering out what other people may be able to ignore as background noise. Luke Jackson notes how he finds it difficult to distinguish between foreground and background noise, and Temple Grandin refers to her hearing as being permanently turned up to maximum (Jackson 2002 and Grandin 1995). For example, if you take a moment to pay attention to all the sounds that occur in the supermarket you will become aware of people talking, tills beeping, the tannoy system, babies crying etc. Imagine all those noises being heard at the same volume. This would be unbearable for anyone to endure, and this may be what a child with an ASD experiences. Added to this, many noises such as the announcements over a tannoy system are sudden loud noises and unpredictable.
Children with an ASD can become overwhelmed with subtle smells you may not even notice such as someone's perfume or, in the shops, strong odours such as those coming from the fish, meat or perfume counters. You may find that certain areas of the shop can cause the child to become upset and it could be a certain scent is causing distress. Other children find it difficult to distinguish between different smells and they may be overwhelmed by all the different scents in the shop. If you think about how overwhelming the scents of lots of different perfumes when you are in a big department store. This could be the experience your child is having in any shop.
Children with an ASD may also experience problems visually. Fluorescent, flickering lights or reflecting light may hurt the child's eyes or mesmerise them, making it confusing for them (Attwood 1998). There are many different objects to focus on in a shop and changing patterns appear in rows or on shelves. A child with an ASD can have difficulty focusing on only one or two objects and may feel overwhelmed by this complex environment, experiencing 'visual overload'.
Some children with an ASD may also be very sensitive to touch. Donna Williams describes the pain of being touched as 'sharp as a pin' and at times 'shocking' as though being jolted (Williams, D. 1996 p202). This can cause difficulty for children if they are trying on new clothes or shoes. Certain fabrics which to you may seem very soft and comfortable may be intolerable for your child to touch. If your child insists on wearing something that you think inappropriate, such as a heavy winter coat in summer, it may be that he/she is getting some positive sensory feedback from either the fabric or the weight of the clothing.
Lack of understanding
Unless it has previously been explained or demonstrated to a child, it can be very hard for him/her to understand the need to go to the shops. He/she may not realise that we all have to shop. This can lead to frustration and stress which may be shown through behavioural difficulties. Some children may not understand that a visit to the shops has an end point and they may need visual prompts to help remind them. It may also be difficult for a child 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? Other children 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 the changing room in a department store. Other children 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.
Invasion of personal space
Especially in crowded supermarkets and busy department stores, it can become confusing and frightening for a child with an ASD to be in an environment with so many people.
Strategies to overcome these difficulties
When trying to understand any behaviour, it can be useful to start by using a behaviour diary to try and identify which triggers may be causing the behaviour as it can be easier to then identify some possible solutions (see recommended reading list). For example, if behaviour persists in certain areas of the shop, keeping a diary may help to determine any potential environmental triggers in those areas, such as particular smells. Also note what time of day and day of the week you go shopping. Are some days/times better than others? Instead of going on a busy Saturday morning, would it be possible to go earlier in the week? If you find shoe or clothes shopping particularly difficult then it may be useful to keep a sensory diary to see if there are particular colours, fabrics or shoes your child finds difficult to tolerate.
There are a number of ways in which you can prepare a child for a shopping trip and thus reduce some of the confusion and frustration. This can be done either by showing a child a photograph of the shop you are going to before getting in the car or having a symbol on a daily timetable. Some children find it difficult to understand why we have to go shopping. There are books which may help explain the event (see recommended reading list) or you may find it useful to write a Social Story about the trip. Social stories can be helpful when explaining not only why an event occurs, but also what is expected of a person when they go there (for further information please see our Social Stories information sheet). Below is an example of a Social Story explaining why we go to the supermarket based on a story on going to the grocery store from Carol Gray's book My Social Stories:
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.
It may be useful to write a social story if there is a specific aspect of the shopping trip that your child appears to have difficulty understanding, such as trying on new clothes or shoes. For example, writing a story about why it is ok to try on different clothes in the changing rooms at a shop but not anywhere else.
Some children may identify going to particular shops with a particular route. It is important that either you keep to this route or take alternatives as much as possible so that your child does not get confused if you do then have to follow a diversion.
Your child may find it useful to act out trips at home to help prepare them. Many shops sell toys that can help. There is also computer software which reinforces life skills at a more general level ie what to expect when you go shopping (see useful contacts).
It may also be a good idea to provide rules of how to behave in a shop, giving positive instructions ie 'In the supermarket I can do x'. For some children it may be possible to arrive at the rules together and sign a contract. For others, an outside authority setting the rules can be more effective. Perhaps a shop manager or cashier could talk to your child. Alternatively, there are books written for teenagers which give more general rules for behaviour (Jackson 2002 and Segar 1997: see recommended reading). It may be possible to incorporate social skills training into the visit for older children for example teaching about the value of money and how to pay.
Learning some relaxation techniques may also be beneficial in relieving stress. There are a number of books designed to teach children with an ASD how to relax (see recommended reading).
Many children with an ASD find visual support easier to process than spoken communication and visual prompts may help them understand the different steps in a visit, or to help remind them that there will be a point when the shopping trip will finish. There are a number of visual prompts that can be used:
Now and Next Board
Having a now and next board (with a picture of a shop as 'now' and a photograph of what you are doing next) which you carry around the shop may help the child understand that there will be a point when the shopping trip will end.
You may find that having a visual timetable of all the different steps in the shopping trip may help increase your child's understanding of what is happening. Some children may prefer to have every step shown to them; others may need only one or two steps.
Having a small shopping list in visual form can help to keep a child on task. Try to think of things that are spread out around the shop or if you are going into a couple of shops, items in each shop, so the child does not find everything at once but is involved in the task for as long as possible.
There are a number of websites where you can print off free symbols for timetables and shopping lists (see useful contacts section).
Visual support can also be used to help a child identify to an adult when they are beginning to feel frustrated or stressed. This could be a help card in their pocket which can be brought out to show the adult when they are finding the situation difficult to cope with. A stress scale such as a 'traffic light system' where green is 'I'm fine', and red is 'I need help' can help a child show an adult how they are feeling and may help the adult to decide how well the child is coping (for further information please refer to our Visual support information sheet).
If your child does have difficulty processing light or noise, earmuffs, a walkman or earplugs can help cut out external noise or give your child one particular noise to focus on. Tony Attwood suggests humming can help a child to focus on one noise as well (Attwood 1998). Sunglasses can help a child to process light and cut out some of the brightness and flickering. Baseball caps can be useful as they not only block out some light but can also reduce the level of noise your child hears as well.
Members of the public can often increase stress levels for both yourself and your child by misinterpreting your child's behaviour. Carrying information on autism and Asperger syndrome to give people when you are out can reduce misunderstanding on their part and hopefully lead to a less stressful experience for you. There are different cards that you can buy to hand out (see useful contacts).
Some children with an ASD find it difficult to understand danger. If they find the environment difficult, they may try and run out of the shop. Others will not have an awareness of potential hazards such as those in a busy car park. As a result some parents will use equipment to warn them when their child has run away, as well as giving their child identity tags should they become separated from their parent (see useful contacts). Some parents will apply for a Blue Badge so they are able to park in parking bays close to the shop door (for further information please refer to our Blue Badge information sheet at the bottom of this page).
Some children on the spectrum will have general difficulties in processing. If your child is young you may need to build up his/her tolerance of such an environment. Taking your child on short trips for one item, or for a couple of minutes at a time, may help him/her to gradually learn to cope. Starting in your local corner shop and building up to a supermarket may also help. Alternatively, having a timer so the child can see how much longer he/she will be in the environment may reduce the stress of the situation.
Having a comforter or a toy to distract the child can also help (please refer to useful contacts). For some children this may just be a small familiar object for them to fiddle with in their pocket. For other children, channelling their interest may help them to focus and ignore everything else that is going on in the shop. For example, how many pictures of Thomas the Tank Engine can you find in the shop?
Shoe shopping can be particularly difficult for children if they find it difficult to tolerate certain types of shoes or if they do not understand why they need to go shoe shopping. Some strategies have been mentioned that may help you to overcome some of these difficulties. There are also a number of websites which provide information on measuring your children's feet at home so you are able to buy shoes without them having to be present (please refer to useful contacts).
Some shops, especially the larger department stores, have got facilities for people with disabilities such as larger changing rooms or personal shoppers as well as telephone and internet shopping (for further details please refer to useful contacts). If there are particular shops that you know you will be making repeated trips to, it may be worth contacting the shop to see what kind of provision and facilities they can offer you and your family.
When you have had a successful trip, you may find that rewarding your child afterwards reinforces good behaviour. This can be done in a number of ways: getting a sticker, five minutes watching their favourite video or a small treat, for example. It is important to give this reward soon after the event so that your child can learn to make the association between the trip and the reward.
Post shopping trip
It is also important to note that your child may need some calm time after over stimulation. He/she may need to wind down in the car or the house afterwards. If you think this is the case, it is important to let the child wind down before asking them to do anything or go anywhere else that may increase his/her stress levels again. As the child becomes more tolerant of such environments, it may be possible to slowly build up his tolerance by going to two shops, then three. However, for some children, they will need time out afterwards to reduce their stress levels.
Child Safe Zones
Bridge Road Business Park
West Sussex RH16 1TX
Tel: 01444 89 22 03
Child Safe Zones sells tags for children to wear on their clothes or bags as well as wristbands where your emergency contact details can feature. You are also able to register your child's details with the company as well.
Grange Road Ind. Est.
Northants NN14 1AL
Tel: 01536 744 788
Easylink electronics sells safety equipment including personal alarms, sensor mats, door buzzers etc.
Websites: http://trainland.tripod.com/pecs.htm; www.angelfire.com/pa5/as/asteachersites.html; www.do2learn.com
These websites have free pictures and symbols for shopping lists and visual timetables.
Norfolk IP20 0HN
Tel: 0870 429 4000
Sells relatively cheap toys and gadgets that can be used as distracters for children to fiddle with when they are in an environment they find stressful.
Gatehead Business Park
Delph New Park
Oldham OL3 5BX
Tel: 01457 819 790
This company has computer programs to help develop life skills such as going to the shops.
P.O. Box 2882
Warwickshire CV37 7YW
Tel: 01789 293 445
Jusonne UK sells safety equipment including alarms to alert parents when their child wanders away, ID bands and wrists bands to remind children what to do if they get lost.
Abbet Gate House
Cambridge CB1 1DB
Tel: 0845 120 4776
The company has different resources to help teach social skills as well as sequencing cards to show the different steps in events such as going shopping, though there do not appear to be ones specifically for going to the supermarket.
Websites: http://shoes.about.com/od/fitcomfort/ss/measurefeet.htm; www.shoebuy.com/sb/customer/tables.jsp
These websites have information on how to measure your child's feet at home
Natobe Safety Ltd.
Kingston Crescent, Portsmouth,
Hampshire PO2 8FA
Tel: 023 9271 2293
Natobe Safety sells alarms that alert the parent when the child has wandered a certain distance away from them. The parent wears the alarm whilst the child wears the receiver.
2500 Chandler Ave. Suite 3
This is an American company that can ship equipment overseas. They have many resources for children with sensory processing difficulties.
Goyt Side Road
Derbyshire S40 2PH
Tel: 0845 230 2777
This company sells many similar resources to LDA to help build life and social skills.
Shopping services for people with disabilities
Some larger shops may provide services for people with disabilities. It may be useful to phone ahead of your visit or search on their website - for example:
It is possible to search on the Debenhams website to find out what services each shop can offer for people with disabilities. They also suggest ringing the specific shop you wish to go to as well.
John Lewis also keeps details of the specific services they have in each of their shops for people with disabilities.
Adamson, J. and G. (1990). Topsy and Tim at the supermarket. UK: Blackie Children's Book
Adamson, J. and G. (1977). Topsy and Tim go shopping. UK: Dorling Kindersley
Attwood, T. (1998). Asperger syndrome: a guide for parents and professionals. London: Jessica Kingsley
Butterworth, N. (1994). When we go shopping. UK: Collins
Comfort, L. (2000). Let's go shopping. UK: Mammoth
Dunn Buron, K. (2003). When my autism gets too big: a relaxation book for children with autistic spectrum disorders. USA: Autism Asperger Publishing Company
Designed to give young children with an ASD lots of strategies to help stay calm and avoid anxiety.
Dunn Darin, K and Curtis, M. (2003). The incredible 5- point scale: assisting children with ASDs in understanding social interactions and controlling their emotional responses. USA: Autism Asperger Publishing Company.
Aimed at children aged 7 to 13 years old to help them work at problem behaviour such as obsessions or yelling and move on to alternative positive behaviours.
Dickinson, P. and Hannah, L. (1998). It can get better ... dealing with common behaviour problems in young autistic children. UK: The National Autistic Society.
Gallacher, L. (2002). Let's go to the supermarket. USA: Simon and Schuster
Gillingham, G. (1995). Autism: handle with care!: understanding and managing behaviour of children and adults with autism. USA: Future Education Inc.
Grandin, T. (1995). Thinking in pictures and other reports from my life with autism. USA: First Vintage Books
Gray, C. (2002). My social stories book. London: Jessica Kingsley
Jackson, L. (2002). Freaks, geeks and Asperger syndrome. London: Jessica Kingsley
Written by a teenager with Asperger syndrome and gives general guidelines on how to behave in different social situations.
May, F. (2005). Understanding behaviour. London: The National Autistic Society.
Written by former Autism Helpline Adviser Fiona May, this booklet offers an insight into practical approaches and strategies which can be applied in day-to-day situations.
Shea, K. (2004). Out and about at the supermarket. UK: Picture and Window Books
Segar, M. (1997). A guide to coping specifically for people with Asperger syndrome. Nottingham: The Early Years Centre.
Available from: The Early Years Centre, Publications, 272 Longdale Lane, Ravenshead, Nottingham NG15 9AH.
Written by a young adult with Asperger syndrome, this offers rules on how to behave in different social situations.
Moon, B. (2005). Let's go shopping. UK: Collins Educational
Williams, D. (1996). Autism: An inside out approach. London: Jessica Kingsley
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