How to Make a Supermarket Outing Successful for Kids on the Autism Spectrum

Amy Nielsen
Little boy with autism holding a lemon at the supermarket.

A year ago, trips to the supermarket with my son, Barclay, were not pleasant. Barclay has a speech disorder, ADHD and is on the autism spectrum. It was sensory overload, for both of us! He’d try to wriggle out of the cart, throw items from the cart and grab things as we walked by aisles. But part of the problem was also me. I’d go to the supermarket when I needed to go rather than planning ahead to go when it was a good time for him. I’d go with a list a mile long and be distracted hunting for things while expecting him to just be patient. It didn’t work.

Children with developmental delays need their parents to be engaged and dialed in. Over the last couple of years I have definitely learned that! I also realized this: I want to be engaged and dialed in! That is when my son learns! A trip to the supermarket is such a great opportunity to teach so many skills. From communication to social interaction, it is a developmental skills playground. But you need to plan ahead and go with some specific and simple goals in mind.

Related:When My Husband Was Diagnosed With Asperger's At Age 34

Here is an example of our most recent supermarket visit. Hopefully it will give you some ideas on how to make supermarket trips with your child pleasant and productive.

First, I made sure I had a list and that it was short. Next, to be sure Barclay was rested, we left after his nap. I also skipped his afternoon snack. Our local supermarket offers a cookie to the kids so I wanted him to be hungry for it. I got him super excited about this cookie. We talked about it a lot. Buy-in for kids is so important. Barclay willingly got into the car seat knowing a cookie was the reward.

These were our supermarket goals:

Goal 1: Remaining in the cart. We successfully accomplished this by first going straight to get that cookie! A child busy eating is too busy to try to climb out of the cart. I also brought his juice and some back up snacks, just in case!

Related:Celebrating What Matters During Autism Awareness Month

Goal 2: Reviewing foods he knows and interacting with some new ones. While in the produce section I asked Barclay to point to fruits and vegetables he was familiar with, like apple and lemon. I let him hold them and smell them. Then I showed him some he didn’t know, like kiwi and peach. He loved it and was so engaged!

Goal 3: Identifying a straw. During an evaluation earlier in the day, Barclay had to name some common objects. His therapist said he couldn’t identify a straw, so that became one of our supermarket goals. We found straws! We found them hanging in an aisle, by the deli, attached to some juice boxes. He had so much fun during our straw scavenger hunt. I am pretty confident he’ll be able to identify one during his next evaluation.

Goal 4: Interacting with people. I’d prompt Barclay to wave and say “hi” to every child and friendly adult we see. Social skills are super important to target for kids on the spectrum. Just getting them to notice other people in the community is a great way to hit that goal.

Related:What to Know Before Seeing 'Avengers: Endgame' as a Person With Autism

Goal 5: Staying engaged with me. How could a child not stay engaged when all of the above was happening? Even at the very end, we reviewed each item as he helped me unload our groceries onto the conveyor. It was such a great success!

I hope this was helpful. Your goals for your child will more than likely look completely different. Our goals for our next supermarket trip will, too. The points to remember are to plan ahead and make meaningful goals to get the most out of your trip to the supermarket with your child.

Do you have any suggestions or comments about things you do with your child to make shopping a learning, engaging and positive experience?

“Tell me and I forget. Teach me and I remember. Involve me and I learn.” — Benjamin Franklin

Read more stories like this on The Mighty:

How My Sister With Autism Found Fair and Equal Employment

This Autism Awareness Month, Please Listen to Autistic People

When I Was Bullied as an Autistic Teen