a Child With Autism to the Grocery Store
By Alan Harchik, Ph.D., BCBA
to the supermarket with a child with autism can be a stressful experience
for parents concerned about serious behavior problems. They worry
that their child might throw a tantrum, run away, talk to or touch
other shoppers inappropriately, or open food items before they are
purchased. A successful visit, on the other hand, can make this
routine family chore much more pleasant, and presents the child
with numerous opportunities for learning.
can parents do to make these trips successful? First, bear in mind
that success requires both the direct teaching of necessary skills
and the consistent managing of behavior problems. Parents should
employ a structured teaching and behavior management plan that includes
proven procedures such as teaching in small steps, presenting frequent
opportunities for practice, providing clear instructions and assistance,
using positive rewards, and having a consistent response to any
behavior problems if they occur.
Parents should work with their child's school to ensure that specific
goals - such as learning supermarket skills - are included in their
child's Individual Education Plan (IEP). Then, instruction can be
individually designed for the child in a way that both parents and
teachers can implement. It is very important to select and consistently
implement a strong reward system, especially during the early stages
most children, instruction should begin in simulated practice settings
at home or in school before moving on to a small grocery or convenience
store. The child should be able to follow a number of basic instructions
in a more controlled environment before visiting a larger supermarket.
a plan to address problem behaviors is an important component in
the training program. The plan should be the same for school and
home. Immediately leaving the store and not providing a reward can
be effective, unless the child's behavior problems occur because
he or she wants to leave the store. "Giving in" and offering
the child a toy or edible treat to avoid or stop a tantrum may be
effective for the moment, but will likely make the problem worse
in the future.
Kay, Ph.D., director of the May Center in West Springfield, recommends
teaching the child the following instructions:
"Come here." Use two adults to teach so rewards and assistance
can be provided immediately. Start with a small distance - about
six feet - between child and adults.
"Stop." Also use two adults so you do not have to chase
the child if he or she does not comply.
"Hold my hand." Give the child a reward for walking small
distances (15 feet) while holding an adult's hand without pulling
away or falling on the floor.
"Stay with me." After holding hands is mastered, reward
the child for walking small distances and staying next to the adult.
"Wait in line with me." Start with very short lines.
the child masters the basic skills outlined above, the supermarket
experience will be much more positive for both the parent and the
child. Then, more advanced supermarket skills can be taught, such
as making and using a shopping list, locating one or more items
from the list, pushing the cart appropriately, asking for help from
a store employee, and mastering counting and other money skills.
would encourage parents to avoid stores that are too large and/or
crowded, and to keep the initial visits brief. It is better to have
multiple short successes and slowly build up to longer, successful
Institute operates schools for children and adolescents with autism
and other developmental disabilities in Chatham, Randolph, West
Springfield, and Woburn, Mass., and in Freeport, Maine. The Institute
also provides residential and day services for adults. For more
information, call 800-778-7601, or visit www.mayinstitute.org.
Harchik can be contacted in West Springfield at 413-734-0300, or
information presented on this site is intended solely as a general
educational aid, and is neither medical nor healthcare advice for
any individual problem, nor a substitute for medical or other professional
advice and services from a qualified healthcare provider familiar
with your unique circumstances. Always seek the advice of your physician
or other qualified healthcare professional regarding any medical
condition and before starting any new treatment.