Shopping can be an exhausting experience even without children in tow but we all know that there are times when shopping without them can’t be avoided. There will even be times when we might want to take the kids along to help them learn some important new skills.
A shopping trip can help develop life skills on a number of levels. In the early years, understanding behavioural expectations or learning to deal with different sensory stimuli might be the primary aim. An older child or teenager preparing for independent living might be learning to choose the items they need in a supermarket and how to pay for them.
With our TomTag Tips and the right planning and preparation, there’s no reason why you can’t turn your shopping trip into a productive, educational and dare we say it, maybe even a fun experience!
Can be used effectively to help children with autism understand why we need to go shopping and what to expect when they get there. Try a Pinterest search to find examples for writing your own shopping social story.
Create timelines using TomTag to show the different stages of a shopping trip and make sure to talk through them with your child before you go. Knowing what to expect can greatly help to reduce anxiety and stress for a child with autism. The amount of detail needed in your timeline will vary with each child. Use FIRST – THEN prompts in a single tag at the simplest level or link 2 tags together to create a more detailed shopping trip sequence like the ones shown here.
For some children, the route to the shops might be important to their routine too – try to stick to the same one each time if possible to help prevent them becoming distressed before you even get to the shops! Include the route or what transport you will use in your timeline as well.
Don’t forget to include a visual prompt to define that there will be a point when the shopping trip will finish too (maybe the home symbol, for example) – cue relief all round!
Make a list
Shopping with a list is a good discipline for anyone to adopt – it can save us time and money as we’re more likely to only buy the things we really need.
You can introduce different skills by involving your child in preparing your shopping list. They can learn to budget and prioritise by only including the items that are needed for a meal or recipe. Perhaps they want something that’s not on the list – maybe offer to add it next time if they are good this time to teach delayed gratification.
Taking a prepared list will also help to keep a child engaged whilst shopping as they search for and check things off their list. They’re learning to be responsible and it helps them to realise they can have a role to play in everyday family tasks.
Matching – finding items on the shelf that match the items on their list.
Counting – use a different coloured tag to show how many of each item you need to buy and have them put the right number into the trolley, like this example using apples and oranges.
Calculating – working out the best value choice often involves quite complex calculations, particularly with 3-for-2, half price and BOGOFs (buy one get one free) to compare!
Making healthy choices – reading and understanding food labels is a key starting point to being able to select healthier options.
Loud sounds, overwhelming smells and flickering lights can be particularly confusing and frightening for a child with sensory issues. If your child has trouble processing light or noises then provide some sensory ‘armour’ such as sunglasses, ear defenders or a baseball cap to reduce the potential of sensory overload.
Have a signal your child can use to indicate when they are feeling overwhelmed. My son would show us his red TomTag when he’d had enough!
Allowing for any sensory issues, explain the expectations for behaviour when going shopping and inside shops. Be prepared that your child may not get it right first time, or every time – be patient, practice and remember to praise them when things do go well.
Prepare a visual prompt and talk through the rules before you go then take the tag with you as a handy reminder should you need it when you’re out and about.
Shopping for shoes and clothes with a child with autism can often be particularly difficult and require specific explanation of what to expect before you go.
Try role playing the shopping experience at home first. For example, if you need to shop for shoes you’ll most likely need to get their feet measured as well. Practice having your child let you take off their shoes and touch their feet as the assistant in the shop might do. This will help you know what triggers any specific reaction and then prepare for how to deal with it.
John Lewis have recently introduced an autism-friendly shoe fitting service in some of their stores. Do you know of any other local or national shops offering this kind of service to autism families that you’d like to recommend?
For a more detailed look at strategies to help children with autism cope with shopping trips see this great resource from the National Autistic Society.