Shopping with children in tow can typically be tough on a parent who has clear objectives in mind. For a parent of a child with autism, a common shopping trip can trigger meltdowns that will feed long-term disincentives to master what can be a weekly occurrence for a family. So you may want to use some tips and tricks to make such regular activity more productive and tolerable for all.
A trip to a grocery store, for example, is filled with distractions for all our senses. This is exceptionally challenging for those individuals with sensory processing disorders coupled with autism. Hyper- or hypoactivity to sensory input or unusual interest in sensory aspects of our environment is a criterion for a diagnosis of Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). Over 90% of children with ASD demonstrate atypical sensory behaviors, according to research by the National Institutes of Health.
At grocery stores, there are visual displays that can be problematic, announcements or unappealing music on loudspeakers, a variety of smells coming from raw food and cooked samples of prepared foods, and aisle after aisle of shelved items within reach of a child's grasp.
Tip 1: Plan ahead and give notice.
Even a quick stop for an item or two at the grocery may throw a child with autism off his or her expected routine, which can lead to a stress-induced meltdown. Research confirms that knowing what to expect in a daily schedule helps children with autism cope with potentially stressful situations. This means it may be better to resist the understandable temptation to try to sneak in a quick unplanned stop on the way home.
Instead, give notice, even if it is shorter than you'd prefer, even an hour ahead can help them mentally prepare. Set out on the task with tools to help:
- Bring a few of your child's toys, books, and snacks.
- Save your child's favorite item for the time you'll be waiting in line to check out.
Tip 2: Explain your expectations.
The rules of shopping should be explained to your child beforehand. For example, if your child tends to wander physically or mentally by "eloping" or escaping from your attention, give a rule that he or she needs to hold the handle or even push the shopping cart if it means you can keep an eye on where the child and the cart is.
Specifically layout the plans. Telling the child the steps you'll be taking on the trip. For example, verbalize that you will...
- Drive to the store and park in the lot.
- Get a cart and walk into the store.
- Find the items on our list.
- Pay for them at the register.
- Take the items to our car.
- Drive home and unpack items.
- Play a game of your choice.
Tip 3: Make a game of it with rewards.
Involve your child in the task. If your child responds well to visual tasks—common for children with autism—create a checklist and split it with your child per aisle so the child is not out of sight. As you each retrieve items and check them off, this will further provide a sense of time for your child as they are anticipating the trip's end their potential reward.
Speaking of rewards, it is important throughout the task to reinforce good behavior with verbal cues, such as: "Thank you for helping me." or; "I really appreciate you being patient and keeping your voice calm. I love you."
You can also give your child physical rewards for completing tasks on the list without problem behavior. This reinforcement can be a small preapproved item of choice from the store or a set number of minutes with a reward toy you brought. What happens right after a behavior is what will influence whether it does or does not happen again. For example, let your child have some electronic time or a special treat when a task is mastered. What happens right after a good or bad behavior is what will influence whether they are repeated.
Just as important as providing praise and rewards, so is minimizing the attention when there is a problem. While they may be hard to ignore, it is important to not engage in elevating a misstep into a meltdown. Your child may nag for an item. You can address this with a negative response and then redirect attention to the rules and tasks at hand with reminders about their responding reinforcements. Keep your statements brief and very calm and do not engage in the argument.
Tip 4: Keep trips short and have a "comfort" code.
Start off with short trips with the objective of getting under 5 items. This way your child has a better chance of managing and with more positive experiences, the better the chance of your child associated shopping with a positive experience and managing longer trips in the future.
Make sure there's a way for your child to communicate to you when he or she begins to feel overwhelmed. Some children might be able to identify and ask for a break, while others cannot. Identify your child's warning signs and apply a code word or action when your child's patience is nearing a limit and help your child feel comfortable using that code to prevent greater anxiety. It could be as simple as putting hands over eyes to indicate they are overwhelmed.
To learn more about how Centria Autism can help you and your family navigate a diagnosis and insurance verification, or treatment of ABA Therapy, please contact our team of specialists at (855) 423-4629.