Grocery Shopping Intervention for Kids With Autism


My last post addressed why grocery trips can be difficult for a child with autism.  Now let’s discuss a few techniques that can be used to make grocery trips more successful.

First, let’s define success.  What does that mean to you?  To each family it will probably be something different.  This is like writing IEP goals for the grocery store 🙂
Here are some ideas (try to keep them with positive verbiage, rather than focusing on what you don’t want to happen):
  • When we go to the grocery store we will have inside voices the whole trip.  
    • This is actually not specific enough, you may need to define how long the trip is going to be.  And then ask yourself if that’s realistic.
  • When we go to the grocery store we will keep our hands in the cart at all times.
    • Once again, you’ll want to define for how long.  Are you expecting your child to do this for 10 minutes or 2 hours?  And what is realistic.
  • When we go to the grocery store we will keep our clothes on.
Ok, you get the picture.  Figure out your expectations.
Next step is to create successful experiences.  If you know that your child generally keeps a quiet voice for the first half of the grocery trip, and then starts yelling half way through, go with that.  Go to the store for half the time.  Make intentional trips to the store, not with the intention of getting everything on your list, but with the intention of making the trip “successful” for your child.  
The purpose of these trips is not to check things off your list, the purpose is to have a positive experience with your child at the grocery store.  They need to know what it feels like to be successful.  Obviously, there are days that you need to get your groceries, these are not the trips I’m talking about right now.   These are the planned teaching moments to the store.
Here’s some tips
  • Make a short trip to the store (less than 5 minutes) to get maybe just one item.
  • Talk about what you’re going to do before you go (even if your child is non-verbal, this is still an important step) If you have a social story, or even pictures of what you’re going to do, visuals are always great.  You can go over this story throughout the week, the day of, in the car before ou get out, however much prep you think your child needs.
    • We are going to walk into the store and we will find the aisle with the bread.  
      • Take the picture of bread with you so you can remind your child what you’re getting, or so that he/she can help you find it.
    • We’ll need to remember to use our inside voices in the store.
    • Then we’ll go to the cash register to pay for the bread.
    • And then we will go home in the car.
    • Then stick to the plan.
  • Keep your attention on your child, interacting with him/her as you walk to get that item
  • If you normally want your child in a cart when you’re shopping, you’ll still want them to be in the cart even if you’re buying just one thing.  Try to make things the same as they would be if it were a long shopping trip, because this is a learning experience for them.
  • Compliment your child on the positive behavior you are seeing and looking for
    • “I really like how you’re talking with your inside voice.”
    • “You are walking so nicely, I love it!”
    • Saying “good job” is not specific enough, they need to know what exactly it is that they’re doing that you like.  They’re more likely to do it again in the future if they know.
  • Go during the day when you know lines/wait time will be short.
  • As you are leaving the store, praise, praise, PRAISE your child.
    • “You did so great!  I am so proud of you for keeping your inside voice the whole time we were in the store!”
  • In the car, praise your child.
  • When you get home, brag about your child to your family!
  • Did I mention to use positive reinforcement?  🙂
  • After the successful trip, go do a fun activity…while praising your child about what they just accomplished.
  • Disclaimer:  Using tangibles (like a treat from the store) can be dangerous, not for the moment but for the future.  If you start to reinforce your child by buying them something they want from the store they may expect it every time, and it may cause future meltdowns when you have to say no.
Repeat the process.  Repeat this experience on another day, but go for a few minutes longer, get 2-3 items instead of just one.  Increase the time you are in the store after each successful trip.
If your 5 minute trip is unsuccessful, revamp your plan.  Does your trip need to be a walk in the door, say hi to the greeter, and leave?  It’s ok if it does.  You have to start somewhere.  Even if your trip is unsuccessful, please still praise your child for the things that they did right.  For every negative thing a child hears, they should hear AT LEAST 4 positives.

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