Having a child on the autism spectrum can make even the most routine activity, such as grocery shopping, an unwanted adventure in social awkwardness. Autism is unique from other disabilities in that there are often no physical markings to differentiate a child with autism from his neurotypical counterpart. This can cause un-informed individuals to quickly judge the unpredictable actions of a child with autism. However, the expectations of the public should not prevent any individual with a disability and their family from living their day-to-day lives. I am a mother of a 12-year-old daughter on the autism spectrum, and am offering the following 5 tips for taking your child with autism into social and public settings without feeling judged by onlookers:
1. Dealing with other peoples’ reactions
– Don’t take it personally. If your child has a meltdown, then keep your focus on your child. It is not your responsibility to comfort and explain to other people what is going on. Most people are not reacting to your child’s meltdown to be rude; they just don’t understand what’s wrong or how to handle the situation. If you feel you need to say something, stick to the facts and don’t get emotional. You can give them the definition of autism on a business card or simply state that my child has autism and I am doing my best to help him/her get used to outings at the store.
2. Talk about the outing ahead of time
– Discuss where you are going. Talk about it as you are getting your child ready. Before you leave the house let them know they are going to the store, or wherever it may be. Talk about what will happen when you are there and what they can expect. If they respond, encourage them to talk about what they like about that particular place. Keep it as positive as you can.
3. Start out slow
– Don’t expect a child to be able to handle a long shopping trip and waiting in a line after being in a store for an hour. Start with a quick trip ( about 5-10 minutes ). Go get 1 or 2 items or do a quick task. They need to get comfortable and familiar with the new environment. I like starting with shopping for an item they would want. I also like using the self-checkout because it can keep them busy. It may also help to go early in the morning when the shelves are fully stocked and there is a lot less noise and people.
4. Have a plan
-Plan the outing and prepare. An example of this would be when going to the grocery store- make a list. Separate it by departments according to the layout of the store. This helps so you don’t have to go down any rows twice and you spend less time wandering, which is sometimes stressful for someone with autism because they aren’t sure what to expect. Your plan should have a direct path from start to finish so there is no confusion.
5. Give your child a task.
– This keeps them busy. Make a picture board with Velcro. Pick 2-5 motivating items that you plan on purchasing and attach pictures with Velcro to the board. Try to keep their focus on the list while you are shopping. Praise the child when they find the items and put them in the cart (take the picture away when the item is found). Give lots of praise and make it a fun game. Hint: Try to put items located throughout a store so you can shop the whole store not just one row of it.
For additional resources and information for the autism community, I recommend National Autism Network.