The Autism Society Philippines (ASP) is a national, non-profit organization dedicated to the well-being of persons on the autism spectrum disorder. We envision a society where Filipinos on the spectrum become the best of their potentials -- self-reliant, independent, productive, socially-accepted citizens of an Autism-OK Philippines.

28 September 2010

Shop…Do Not Drop! (Going to the supermarket with your child with autism)

By Dang U. Koe, ASP Chair Emeritus

Whenever I give talks to SM mall guards and other frontliners on understanding shoppers with autism, I share with them our family’s early experiences with my son Gio inside the supermarkets.
My biggest supermarket horror story was when Gio insisted on opening the cookie wrapper before we could pay for it. Following his teachers’ instructions, I repeatedly told Gio to “pay first, eat later.”

Gio persisted, but I wouldn’t give in even when we were already in the check-out counter. I should have known better. The other customers in line waiting for their turn to pay served as Gio’s audience when he hit the floor, throwing a mean and “scandalous” tantrum. All eyes were on us.

Today, Gio calmly shops with us inside the supermarket, even if he is not rewarded with his favorite food after. He patiently walks around the mall with us, even if it takes the whole day. We learned our lessons.

With the kind permission of Grace Ann Baresich, president & founder of Autistic Traveler LLC, below are three execution plans on preparing children with autism in going to the supermarket. This article can be found in

Gio showing his PWD ID at the cashier

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For your trip to the supermarket with your child with autism, you will need to outline the game plan for him to create a sense of order and expectation. Here is an example of a plan:

1) Write a simple outline of what you are going to do (i.e. “first we are making our shopping list, then we are going to the store, then we are coming home, then we are having a snack”).

2) Make a list of what you want to buy at the store. Keep the list simple - items that your child knows and would want (i.e. chips, cookies etc)

3) Keep the list and your time expectations short. Ending on a positive note is important. Otherwise the experience will be remembered as negative and your child might exhibit behaviors as a means of escaping and filtering out the uncomfortable aspects of the trip.

4) Choose the store carefully. It should be a store that you will go into again and again, but also one that you know well enough to cancel the trip if it does not go well. In other words, always know your exit plan.


Level 1: For the beginner, lowest functioning child
Level 2: For the more experienced, more verbal child
Level 3: For the highest level, most verbal child

For the youngest child with autism and/or the lowest functioning one, the trip and the expectations should be short and sweet to avoid a negative experience.

1. Keep the shopping list to a maximum of three very familiar items that your child normally would ask for or really want (i.e. candy, chips, cookies etc). If three items are too much or too little, adjust the number of items to ensure success.

2. Do NOT do any other shopping while in the store.

3. Choose a quiet time to go to the store: when the store is least busy, perhaps short or no lines. Waiting in line in a store can be challenging and can ruin the entire experience. After all, WHO likes to wait in line anyway? Being in a loud place like the supermarket, with bright lights and noises can be a very difficult experience for a child with autism who has sensory issues.

4. Get in and out of the store as quickly as possible. If needed, facilitate the shopping — use hand-over-hand to get the items into the cart and at the check-out counter; and then quickly get out of the store.

5. Be sure to praise your child at each step of the process: going into the store, getting the cart, putting items into the cart , loading them onto the check-out counter. Keep the positive praise going.

6. At the end, when you are inside the car, give your child a reward. It may be candy, cookie or whatever is appropriate for your child that he would consider a treat. Make him realize what a wonderful thing he just accomplished.

Plan on doing this activity three times a week for about a month, monitor how it is going:

If the store is too busy all the time, find another store. But find one that you will use on a normal shopping trip. Your short-term goal is to expand the time in the store and the shopping list. The ultimate goal is to have your child shop with you for groceries for the household.

If it is not working, you can try changing the type of store. Consider a smaller store. It doesn’t have to be a grocery store; any store that you can go into with a short list of things to buy. It is important to have a goal and stick to it. Otherwise your child will be without a mission and it could become confusing and disorienting.


For the higher functioning and or more verbal child, some of the pointers in plan Level 1 may not be appropriate. Always tailor your plan for the level of your child’s language, sensory tolerance, and exposure to outside activities.

1. Let your child make the shopping list with you, have him write the list. Try to keep it simple but let your child be excited about what he will be buying. Remember you will be rewarding your child, so be sure there are fun items on the list that could be the reward.

2. Choose the store wisely. While your child might be higher functioning, older or more experienced, a store can still be a daunting experience. Picking a quiet time cannot hurt anyone; it will help ensure a successful trip to the supermarket.

3. Let your child lead in the store. Given their functioning level, doing so can raise their self esteem in an environment that would otherwise be uncomfortable.

4. Like in Level 1, get in and out quickly. Do not do other shopping. Be sure to praise your child during the store experience, and give him a reward at the end.

Continue doing this at least three times a week. Add in your own shopping list as you see fit, but move up slowly to ensure a positive experience. The name of the game is always error-free success; you want to create situations that allow success with the least amount of correction.

Positive reinforcement is the key to any successful activity with a child with autism. Never mind people staring at you or wondering why you are praising your child even for each simple step.


Only you can determine what level your child is in, and then work on a plan. In fact, you might find that your child starts at Level 1 but quickly moves up to a higher level because of a successful trip or his overall progress.

This level is for the highest functioning children with autism. It would include those children with strong communication skills, both verbal and non verbal.

At this level you might be wondering why this exercise is necessary.

First of all, going to the supermarket or any store for that matter is a practical exercise in life. Everyone has to learn how to maneuver their way through a store of any kind in order to have, or at least attempt to have, an independent life. Also, stores in general present many sensory obstacles.

Every child with autism has sensory issues. The range is wide, varied and sometimes unpredictable. For example, the sound of a vacuum cleaner may be painful to a child with autism, but he may not be affected by loud music playing. Children with autism benefit from working with the sensory issues that affect them. The more exposure, the less sensitive they may become. Making small changes are important to see the benefits.

At Level 3, you would do similar activities as Levels 1 and 2. But you would have a longer list of items, and you can also ask your child to write the items for you. Also, you are not limited to just the supermarket — you may go to any store that you feel might present a challenge for your child, like a large Home Depot.

1. Select the store.

2. Make the shopping list.

3. Have your child select the items in the store and pay at check out (if able to).

During this activity, it is important to note any behavioral change that might occur so that you can be prepared when you introduce another destination for your child. Since your child is verbal, listen to him carefully and identify potential problems. For example, if your child is expressing any discontent during the trip to the supermarket, take note of it and remember it when planning the next trip. Try to avoid, as best you can, reintroducing something that could trigger that uncomfortable or bad feeling in your child. This is challenging but you and only you can tell when your child is stressed.


Be sure to let the store clerks know that your child has autism (be prepared for confused looks as there are still a number of people who will not know yet what you are talking about!).

An understanding person will be supportive, and your child will sense this support. On the contrary, your child may also sense when the store clerk is not patient — and this can create an uncomfortable and intolerable situation for your child which can result in a meltdown of sorts. Unfortunately, there are still a lot of people who are not educated about autism.

At the check-out counter, allow your child to pay for the groceries or swipe your credit card; some children with autism will feel a sense of closure and accomplishment with this act.

If your child is learning about money or math in school, this is also an opportunity to incorporate lessons within the shopping activity. Paying in cash will allow your child to find correct bills and counting change. Or you can simply ask your child to read the total grocery amount to see how he is doing with numbers, large and small.

Of course, all of these depend on your child’s functioning level and if these activities are in keeping with his school program. Remember, constant use and reinforcement of educational goals, both in school and at home, will allow your child to generalize and master their goals

Uploaded with permission from Manila Bulletin, Shop…Do Not Drop!


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