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Time to Shop

  • Posted on August 6, 2014 at 10:00 AM

As those of you with school-age children will know, it’s time to do the before-school shopping, where you get all the school supplies the school says your child will need for the year, as well as a closet-full of new school clothes (if you can afford that sort of thing). In a household with children with autism, this ritual is modified. While the modifications depend entirely on the child, here are a few things that might occur:

  • Your child does NOT want new clothes—no matter how cool they happen to be. Even new socks and/or underwear can ramp up the before-school anxiety.
  • Your child does NOT want a new backpack—even if the old one is falling apart and held together with duct tape.
  • If your child MUST have a new backpack, then it MUST be the same style, size, and color as the backpack that is being replaced.
  • If your child MUST have new clothes, then the outfits should emphasize comfort and should not be stress-inducing or exciting; whether the clothes are “cool” or not may not matter to your child.
  • Your child may require a set of “school” supplies for home, as well as for school, because paper, pens, pencils and crayons are always welcome. Your child might “break into” his or her school supplies if a set of the most desirable items is not purchase for immediate, at-home use. This can also reduce anxiety about going back to school.
  • Your child does NOT want a new pair of shoes—even if his or her shoes are too small or have holes in the toes and in the soles.
  • If your child MUST have new clothes/shoes, then they should be as adaptable as possible, meaning that it is ill advised to get a new summer set and then, later, a new fall set. If possible, get a new set that will be adaptable until the next growth spurt, adding new items as the seasons change.
  • Your child may have absolutely no interest in going shopping with you; the added stress of shopping on top of the near-constant back-to-school stress may be too much for your child to bear. If your child says, “No” in any way, shape or form, honor that choice if at all possible.
  • If your child MUST go shopping with you, please respect your child enough not to drag him or her to multiple stores in pursuit of the best deals—the cost savings is not worth the stress this will cause your child. If possible, avoid peak shopping times.

For many children with autism, going back to school is stressful enough. For many children with autism, going shopping is stressful enough. Combining the two is a disaster waiting to happen. Please honor and respect your child’s needs during this stressful, anxiety-ridden time.

How to…Go Shopping with an Autistic Child

  • Posted on March 21, 2012 at 8:00 AM

Taking a dysregulated kid into a store can be a hellish experience.  On the one hand, you have the child who is uncomfortable and in need of care.  You also have yourself, usually frazzled, at the end of your rope, struggling to accomplish something with a child who isn’t cooperating.  On the other hand, you have the people around you who are oh-so understanding and helpful.  Ideally, you would be able to ensure your autistic child was comfortably regulated every time you go shopping, or you would be able to go alone.  But let’s face it, sometimes the shopping needs to get done, you need to take your child, and your child can’t really handle the experience all that well.

So, how do you do it?  How do you get through this shopping trip in hell with your child, yourself, and your personhoods intact?

1) Come prepared.

In this contemporary age of on-the-go moms and dads, we’re all probably familiar with the diaper bag.  You can even get chic diaper bags that don’t look like diaper bags, unless of course you’re familiar with chic diaper bags.  We learned to pack diapers, wipes, bottles, formula, a change of clothes, a sippy cup of juice, or whatever.  We might pack a blanket, sun screen, hat or other weather-appropriate extras.  We usually stuff in various forms of snacks and toys, or other distractions.

With an autistic child, you might need all of that or not, depending on their age and development, but you’ll also need some other items.  In particular, you should bring sensory-friendly or sensory-soothing items that help a dysregulated child get regulated, or at least stay within the bounds of self-control.  Chewies are good for this, at least for my boys, and colorful fiddles with different textures.  A set of sound-dampening headphones if you’ve got them.

Unlike when my kids were little, now we have the added advantage of iPods, iPhones, iPads, Kindle Fires and similar technologies which can act as an escape mechanism—a set of comfortable headphones or ear buds and you’re just about golden.

2) Keep it short.

Sure, you’re busy, and you want to get as much as you can so you don’t have to come back later in the week.  It’s a strong urge, but you must resist.  Keep your list short.  Get what you need, what can’t wait, and get out.  Really.  Trust me.  It’s not worth it to wander around leisurely and pick up anything you might like, no matter how much you might enjoy the experience.  The meltdown’s a-comin’.

3) Practice that look.

People will offer unsolicited commentary and advice.  People will criticize you, harass you or your child, make disparaging remarks.  Foster a facial expression that will stave them off and keep it handy.  For me, it’s a slight tilting of the head and a raised eye brow, with a firm mouth and a slight flaring of the nostrils.  I’ve been told by those who it wasn’t directed at, “I didn’t see anything.”  But those who it is directed at know.  They see it.  And it’s a form of challenge.  Most people back down.

4) Prepare a statement.

Perhaps you want to take the opportunity to educate people in your community.  Perhaps you want to tell them to mind their own business and move on as quickly as possible.  The look will stave off a lot of comments and questions, but it won’t catch them all.  Have a statement ready.  If you don’t, you might freeze or say something you regret.  You don’t want to be forced into a position where you find yourself apologizing for your child.  Being autistic is nothing your child did wrong.  You’re not wrong for taking your child into a store.  You have just as much right to be there as anyone else, both of you, and you can’t ever forget that.  Your child is listening.

5) Be prepared to drop everything and leave.

Sure, you’re only here because you have to be.  Sure, you came because you need something and you really don’t want to leave without it (or without paying for it).  But it might happen (not the without paying for it part, please; that will cause problems and those bleeping things won’t help your child).  Your child may be more dysregulated than you think.  Things can spiral out of control pretty fast sometimes.  It happens.  No matter how prepared you are, no matter how much you think you have things under control, sometimes things will be suddenly very much out of control before you can even take a breath, let alone prevent it.

Be prepared to pick your child up and your bag/purse and get out of there.  Leave the cart, the merchandise, and everything else for the staff to take care of (they get paid for it).  If things get out of control, don’t try to force yourself to finish.  Just get out of there.  It’s not worth it.

Shopping with an autistic child can be a wonderful experience, but it has to be the right time, the right mood, the right regulation, and the right store.  Otherwise, it can be hell, but you can survive it with you and your child and your personhoods intact.