This is something I wrote when my son was closer to 4-years-old. He’s now 8. So it’s a bit of a blast from the past. But it’s still relevant for many parents who have younger children with autism, so I’m publishing it here on my blog.
When my son was two or three years old he was tough to handle in grocery stores. First, grocery stores are boring. That’s one strike against them. Second, modern stores attempt to trap us like prisoners in those narrow aisles, forcing us to stare at Cheez Whiz, Beanie Weenies, and pickled herring. That’s strike two. Third, my son has autism and he never liked being contained in that uncomfortable metal cart with the cold plastic seat. So, as parents, we had to get creative!
I noticed that as long as we were moving my son would tolerate being in the cart. Since my wife had to buy groceries she could not keep moving. So we utilized what is now increasingly becoming known as the Nurnberg Family Twin Cart Method. My wife used a cart for the real shopping and Braden and I used the decoy cart for our excursions.
As my son and I aimlessly made our way around the grocery store I tried my best to make it a hands-on interactive experience. I tossed bags of rice onto his lap as I counted like The Count on Sesame Street. I asked him to sniff some perennials in the flower department. I had him place his hand on the catfish filets. But his favorite department was produce. And it quickly became my favorite department also.
A decent produce department features an incredible array of colors, textures, shapes, and smells. That made it a great natural environment to teach my son about all those things, plus counting and how to behave correctly in public. All of a sudden the grocery store was an opportunity for fun and learning, not an opportunity for a fit or a meltdown! And Braden began to enjoy being there. Once in the produce department, I would place a fruity something in Braden’s hands while telling him what it was called. I had him take a sniff and tell me what color it was. Then he or I would do our best to gently place it back with its brothers and sisters in the proper bin. Braden and I would start at one end of the produce department and slowly work our way around to all the different varieties of fruits and vegetables. Often I would contrast the feel of a pear with the feel of a pineapple. Sometimes I would hand him a dry dirty potato and follow it up with a bunch of fresh wet kale. Sometimes I would pretend a crookneck squash was my nose or a couple cactus leaves were my ears, to spark Braden’s imagination. Occasionally I noticed the produce clerk curiously eyeballing me, but usually the other customers smiled when they saw I was teaching my son all about the fruits and vegetables while having fun.
Now Braden is five and he is not too keen on eating much from the produce department. He can still identify an avocado, broccoli and other things he doesn’t want near his mouth though! Just the other day we went to the grocery store. Braden is still a handful, though he has come a long way. He doesn’t sit in the carts. He likes to roam. He loves to open up the doors on the freezer cases and use his finger to draw letters on the glass. He would draw on each door if we let him. Sometimes I join in with him, and I always have to follow him around and keep a close eye on him. We let him draw on five or six doors and then we redirect his attention elsewhere, which is not always easy.
At age five Braden’s main issue in the grocery store is spatial awareness. He does not pay attention to the fact that he is walking right in front of the crazy lady’s shopping cart who is doing 15 MPH through the meat department. Often he will walk directly in someone’s path. These circumstances create a great opportunity for us to teach him about walking in a predictable direction and otherwise saying “Excuse me” when he walks in front of people. Lately we are teaching a lot about “Excuse me.” It is tough to get him to walk in a predictable direction. As far as Braden is concerned he is the only person in the store.
Nowadays Braden rates grocery stores on a single factor, and it’s not the size or depth of their produce department. He is a big fan of Raley’s for one reason; they have the little carts for “shoppers in training.” Essentially it’s a little shopping cart shrunk down to his size. He loves those carts. First prize goes to Raley’s. A year ago, Braden loved Safeway. We called it SafewayLand because they have those carts that look like the front half is a race car and children can sit in there. Braden does not want to sit in a cart of any kind any longer, so SafewayLand gets the 2nd place ribbon this year. Food Maxx, WinCo and most other grocery stores have neither cool little shopping carts for kids nor carts that are partially race cars. They don’t even get a participation ribbon from Braden’s point of view! Three strikes and they are out!