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Coping with going shopping

sensory overload tags

Many shopping experiences can be extremely difficult to cope with for autistic individuals and those who care for them. Changes to  routine, difficult social interactions with strangers and overwhelming sensory experiences are just some of the issues that can cause stress, anxiety, fear and meltdowns.

So why do we bother?

We all need food to eat and clothes to wear so going shopping is a necessary and important part of our lives. Online shopping  can offer us a great alternative to physically leaving the house and going to the shops but it isn’t always the best way to get what we need or the ideal long term solution.

Shopping can help us develop good life skills. We need to plan and organise to make shopping lists or know which shops to visit.  We need to understand money and budgets. Having strategies to cope with social experiences and sensory problems can increase our independence, reduce isolation and help us to be part of a community.

general shopping prep tag

Start planning early

Use a visual routine chart to introduce the idea of your shopping trip. Go at a quieter time of day or week if possible and give as much warning of the upcoming trip as you can. Sneaking in a last minute or surprise visit is best avoided. 

You can use your visual chart to show how you will get there (e.g. car then walk), what sort of shop you are going to and what you need to buy. If you regularly use the same route or transport, try to stick to it or make sure you explain the change of route with visual prompts.

shoe shop what to expect tag

What’s going to happen?

Set up another visual list with more detail about what to expect in the kind of shop you are visiting. For example, at the supermarket you need to put things in a trolley or basket, walk together, queue at the checkout, put the shopping in a bag, then pay.
This preparation is particularly useful when shopping for clothes and shoes which can both be especially challenging shopping experiences. Preparing a simple social story and using a visual timeline will help you to talk about why we need to do this kind of shopping, what’s going to happen when you get there and what it might feel like.  

Ask and answer questions

Why do we take our clothes and shoes off here but not in other shops or public places? Why does the shop assistant get close and possibly touch us when they need to find out what size we need?

Use the time before you go to ask and answer these sort of questions and think about the strategies you and your child can use to help them stay calm. You could even try some role-playing at home too. 

Remember to take your TomTag visual prompt to the shops with you and use it as a reminder of the process once you’re there.

Sensory overload

sensory overload tags

Bright white lights, rows of brightly coloured objects, background music, strong smells and noisy crowds make supermarkets and shopping centres some of the most likely places to trigger sensory overload, leading to meltdowns and consequent behaviour issues.

Try using ear plugs or defenders to dampen noise and dark glasses or peaked caps to reduce the light intensity. Avoid strong smelling areas of shops such as washing powder aisles or perfume sections.

Keep a visual list handy so your child can show you what they are having problems with (too bright, too noisy, too smelly, thirsty, hungry, etc.) and pair it with a list of strategy symbols (deep breathe, count to 10, need to leave, etc.) that you can use to remind them of suitable self-help solutions.

Keep them busy

shopping list checklistGiving your child the responsibility for finding items on your shopping list is a great way to avoid boredom and focus their energy. You can also make up games to keep them interested; for example, be the first to find 3 items on your list and turn the symbol over when you find them.
Involving children in helping to prepare the shopping list at home before you go can also be a useful way to encourage engagement and interest.
You might want to take a favourite toy or fidget or let them use a computer tablet or phone as a distraction as well.

Make your own planners and checklists

We used the kit I know what to expect going shopping with the optional symbol packs My shopping list and Shopping for clothes & shoes but TomTag is a versatile system with the flexibility to choose from a range of toolkits or put together your own combination of components and symbol sets.

Download this guide for free

We’re building a collection of handy guides and tip sheets that you can download for free and print at home. 

  • cover image download school morning routines

    School morning routines

  • cover image download going shopping

    Going shopping

  • cover image download feelings tag

    Feelings tag-o-meter

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    Christmas survival guide

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TomTag life skill of the month – shopping – March 16

woman shoppingShopping 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!

Be prepared

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Social stories

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.

Shopping visual timeline examplesVisual timelines

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.

Routine

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

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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.

Educate

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shopping counting skillsShopping provides a wealth of educational opportunities. Here are just a few examples:

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.

Sensory considerations

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sensory lightsLoud 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!

Behaviour

mar behaviourshopping behaviour prompt sAllowing 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.

Role play

mar roleplay

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?

Resources

Our newly revised Out & About sticker pack now contains a comprehensive range of symbols perfect for preparing for any shopping experience – available as a stand-alone pack or included in the I know what to expect at home set.

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.