Tips for Shopping with Your Child with Autism

For many parents, the prospect of traveling to a grocery store with children can feel a bit daunting. Rarely does this chore unfold gracefully for anyone, and it often elicits the sympathetic, knowing looks of fellow parents who understand how difficult it can be to manage the task of shopping while attending to their child’s needs and sensitivities. As a parent of a child with autism, this task can feel especially overwhelming. There are sometimes unforeseen environmental variables that impact children with autism, so before you step into your usual grocery store, consider preparing a creative strategy to face the new challenges and opportunities that await you and your child. Remember that it’s possible to sensitively and humanely turn a potentially overwhelming errand into a learning experience and healthy challenge.

Grocery Store Guide

When we think of a grocery store, we typically envision aisles of eclectic food options, inspiration for the next meal, and a list of items we bring to help us navigate through a labyrinth of shelves and logos and advertisements. But when it comes to your child with autism, there are so many different sensory and environmental factors to consider: hot and cold aisles, new smells, fluorescent lights, and plenty of other shoppers looking for that one ingredient they need to make their dinner recipe perfect.


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A baby boy in a shopping cart, speeding through a grocery parking lot.

The best approach? Going to the grocery store with your child should be treated as a brief and fun adventure. Children with autism function better when they are prepared for an adventure to the store. You can help your child prepare for your next grocery trip by using visuals to show your child what the grocery store will look like, what food will be there, and where the store is located in relation to your home. Talking with your child about the upcoming trip the morning and/or afternoon leading up to the drive can help reduce your child’s stress, and you can help make the transition to this new space less stressful.

Make a List Together

Whether you are going to the grocery store for some weekly staples, or browsing for clothing at a retail store in the mall, you should aim to include your child in the shopping process by helping him/her prepare for the trip. Try making a list of the items that you need for your upcoming shopping trip. If you are making a specific meal that requires certain ingredients that you need to grab at the grocery store, use visuals of the ingredients you will be looking for in the grocery store and and try writing down those ingredients together. You can use list writing as an opportunity to improve your child’s vocabulary and communication skills by showing visuals and saying the different food items together. For the particularly adventurous, you can even create or display a small map from your house to the grocery store, which has the added benefit of helping your child feel more familiar and comfortable with their local neighborhood. Alternatively, you can illustrate a map of the store together to turn a potentially rote activity into something a little more vivacious and engaging (for younger children, “a treasure hunt”).

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Build Your Child’s Self-Esteem

There are plenty of opportunities to build your child’s self-esteem by involving them in the shopping process. You can find these opportunities throughout the whole experience. Whether you have your child help you bag groceries, check items off of your grocery list, or locate particular ingredients on your list, you can use positive encouragement to praise your child when they complete specific tasks. This is a wonderful way to encourage your child with positive reinforcement. The beauty is that you can adapt your approach to shopping based on your child’s age and the goals they are striving to reach with regard to life skills, social skills, independence of action, speech, etc.

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Before your next trip, we encourage you to take some time to brainstorm and tailor your approach as much as possible to the individual needs of your child. Spending just a little time on this kind of reflection and planning can make future trips to the grocery store, the mall, and other shopping destinations, a mutually fun and edifying experience for you and your child. Looking for other ways to connect with your child with autism? Read “Cooking with Your Child with Autism.”

At Hidden Treasures ABA Therapy Services, our team of specialists is here for you. Whether you are seeking information about advocating for your loved one, or you are looking for support and therapy services for your child with ASD, you can contact our team TODAY.

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