I was grocery shopping with my daughter when we went to the check outs. The line ups were long and moving slowly. I looked down to the farthest checkout where I thought there was a line up and there wasn’t anymore. Is the cashier closing? I quickly check and its then that I notice why the line up magically vanished. There is a lady bagging her groceries and an older man with her helping a young man probably in his teens at the check out. He has head protection on and is beginning to make odd sounding vocalizations and starting to get anxious. He is on the severe end of the Autism Spectrum. One by one carts had moved away as person after person became uncomfortable with what they were seeing. Was the young man loud? No. He was just making sounds to handle the sensory input coming in. Was he listening to his very patient parents? Yes. Did the head protection look scary? No. It looked like what amateur boxers wear but in the boxing ring and not at the check out. Did it look strange and out of place in the grocery store? Did this make people uncomfortable and want to move away?
What did I do? I wheeled my shopping cart with my 2 year old daughter in it over to the checkout and put our food on the conveyer belt. The cashier looked anxious but was professional trying to get the customers through quickly. I noticed that a few folks thought about joining the line but then moved away. I knew we were okay because the young man’s parents were doing a great job helping him through the demanding experience of shopping. He needs to be part of the community.
As I placed the food on the conveyor belt I couldn’t help but think about how hard it can be just to go and buy groceries. It was easier when Johnny was little and could sit in the cart and I could push him around. There are these two level baskets for food and I just couldn’t put food in the top one because he would start randomly dropping or tossing items. I now understand he was becoming of overwhelmed and this was his way of releasing those feelings and communicating. When Johnny became too heavy to lift into the cart and I knew I was pregnant with his sister I now had a new challenge. I had to teach him how to handle shopping.
- I steered the shopping cart with one hand and held Johnny’s hand and never ever let go.
- I did small grocery shops and if things were okay I would shop longer but prepared to shorten a shopping trip if I had to.
- I began to get Johnny to do tasks and get certain groceries for me to keep him occupied.
- I turned shopping into an opportunity to try and increase his receptive language skills and increase his capacity to follow multi-step directions.
- I learned to shop in the same grocery store ALL THE TIME so Johnny would be comfortable and he would know where everything was.
- I learned to move quickly through a grocery store and sometimes practically jog with Johnny down an aisle because the fast walking helped release any anxiety he was feeling being in an overwhelming sensory environment.
- Once Johnny was big enough I had him help me push the cart as much as possible because the “heavy work” also helped re-set his nervous system.
- I try not to take Johnny shopping when the grocery store is busy with shoppers because its hard for him to concentrate on what I’m saying, what other people are saying, watch out for shopping carts and navigate all the visual stimuli.
- We never walked down the greeting card aisle because all the pictures on the cards were too much for Johnny to handle. He’s start pulling them out randomly (and quickly) and dropping them faster then I could pick them up. He was reacting defensively to too much input but of course onlookers or staff didn’t see it this way 😉
- I learned that some aisles in the store made Johnny feel really good. The toothpaste and soap ailes because of how organzied and lined up all the boxes were and there were usually some boxes that needed re-lining up which was calming. I learned that the stand up freezer aisle made him really happy to look at visually and the cold air on his face when he opened the doors made him happy too. Peeking at the giant milk fridge behind the milk baskets (behind the scenes) was a big novelty for him.
- I learned to have a reward at the end of our shop for Johnny to look forward to. A “reinforcer” to positively reward the fact that he tried so hard to handle grocery shopping.
Placing the groceries on the conveyor belt was really hard for a long time. Johnny would get very emotional and start to cry and have a meltdown. I realized that he thought the cashier was taking the groceries away and I had to just try and be calm and “get through” to payment. Cashiers and staff would feel sad for the cute boy being upset and they would try to be helpful and ask him what food he wanted when Mommy was done but they didn’t know and he couldn’t tell them what was really wrong. I began to do lots of pretend play about paying for things. I had him participate by helping me buy one or two items at the grocery store and then see how we get to take the item home after we pay. I had Johnny help place items on the conveyer belt and I had to usually keep his hands in check because he would start to get anxious watching the cashier pick up and touch our food and items. It took a long time and many grocery shops for this to get a lot easier.
Do you know what became my secret weapon of re-direction? There is always a clear donation box where you pay with a slot to drop coins in. I keep a bunch of coins in my pocket and when he needs re-direction I give him the coins while I’m paying or placing bags in the cart and he gets so happy and shoppers think he is the most generous sweet boy ever. Psst…he is 🙂
I’ve read in various articles how sometimes Autism can be the invisible disability. The young man at the checkout with his parents was very visible and people weary of the unknown take a step back and give the person with a disability a wide berth. My son Johnny is on the Autism Spectrum but when he is exhibiting challenging behaviour people will interpret that he’s being shy, introverted, unsociable, bratty, and even rude. They see his handsome face and impish smile and look past the flapping hands, the tippy toeing, the impulsive touches and repetitive questions. They see what they want to see.
1 out of every 88 children has Autism so the chances are when you are out shopping you will come across a child or young person with Autism Spectrum Disorder. They DO NOT need your sympathy. They DO need your understanding so that they can learn how to adapt to being out in the community. Johnny has come so far but it still can be really hard.