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I Can’t Take My Child to the Store
I’ve been an early childhood special ed teacher for 15 years and one of the most common issues that parents tell me is that they cannot take their toddler or preschooler with autism to the store due to awful tantrums in the grocery store.
Some families are at home all day because they know any outing is going to end in tears.
Some families play schedule tetris — trying to make their work and home schedules fit around each other’s so one person is always home and one person can run errands.
The goal of early intervention is to help families and their child with special needs do what other families are doing — go to the store, go to grandma’s house, participate in story time at the library, attend toddler classes, etc.
Many of our toddlers, two-year-olds, and preschoolers with autism need very specific strategies to be able to participate in these activities, however, we can get there!
It’s going to take a lot of work, but I’m going to help you figure out how to get started so you can start eliminating tantrums in the grocery store.
Step One: Figure Out What the Problem Is
As with any other behavior strategy or plan, it needs to be individualized to your child. A generic strategy in a book or trying to do something that worked for your sister-in-law probably won’t decrease your child’s tantrums in the grocery store.
If the plan is not catered towards the reasons your child is having a difficult time, then the problem behaviors you’re seeing at the store are likely to continue or get worse.
First, I want you to think about what the problem is at the store. What specifically is happening that you’d like to change?
- Does your son scream when you put him in the cart?
- Does your daughter run away from you the second you’re in the store?
- Does your son have a tantrum whenever he can’t get the items that he wants?
- Does your daughter scream whenever someone smiles or says hi to her?
- Does your child have a meltdown because you walked in a different door?
Think about the problem(s) your child is having at the store. Write them down.
Step Two: Is The Reason Sensory-based or Behavior-based?
This can take some detective work.
We don’t want to just assume our child is choosing to have a tantrum in the grocery store.
With our youngest kids with autism, almost 100% of the time, the behaviors we are seeing are due to a missing skill and/or a sensory-related issue that they can’t communicate to you.
We all process sensory information differently. Our kids with autism are no different, however, they often misinterpret or are extra-sensitive to certain types of input.
Sensory information comes from our 5 main senses (sight, touch, smell, taste, sound). Information also comes from our muscles, joints, inner ear, and our physiological sensations (hunger, thirst, pain, temperature, elimination, etc).
Our brain has to process all of this information and decide how to respond to it. When our kids misinterpret that information or over-respond, it can cause a lot of issues that look like challenging behaviors, but they’re really communicating to us that something doesn’t feel right or that they need something.
So, think about what you already know about your child:
- Is she sensitive to loud voices or noises?
- Is he sensitive to being too hot or cold?
- Does your child get upset when too many people are close to him?
- Do certain smells bother your daughter?
- Are tantrums / problem behaviors occurring when this things happen?
If those sensory issues are bothersome at home or other places you go with your child, there’s a very good change that those same things are bothering them at the grocery store.
Behavior Related Issue
If you’ve ruled out sensory issues, let’s look at behavior.
These are the more common behaviors you often see/experience in the store:
- Running away
- Grabbing every item
- Screaming in the cart
- Tantrums when you say “no”
These types of behaviors often keep families at home.
But whether your child’s behaviors are sensory or behavior-related, we can make improvements.
Step Three: Plan Your Trip
Before you pack up your car and get everyone in their carseats and seatbelts, you need to plan.
First, are you working on a sensory-related behavior?
If so, think about the following:
- What items do you need?
- Headphones if store is too noisy or another way to minimize sound.
- Jacket if your child gets cold.
- Comfort item to help them stay calm.
- What can you change to decrease the impact of the sensory issues?
- Change the time of day you go so it’s less busy.
- Go to a store that is smaller and quieter.
- Put your body between your child and the well-meaning stranger who wants to say hi.
Are you focused on more of a behavior-related issue?
If so, think about the following:
- What is my child able to do right now?
- Can he sit in the cart for 2 minutes?
- Can she point to the candy she wants?
- What skill do I need to teach my child?
- Do I need to teach my child how to walk by me in the store?
- Do I need to teach my child how to sit in the cart with a calm body?
- Do I need to teach my child how to point to something he wants?
- What are favorite items I can use as reinforcement?
- Small toys
- Comfort items
Planning ahead of time will help a ton! You’ll be prepared. You’ll have the items you need. All of that decreases our anxiety and stress levels and increases our confidence that we can do this!
Step Four: Start with a Small Trip + Motivation
Of course, the ultimate goal is to get through an entire shopping trip.
No tears. No screaming. No abandoning your full cart in an aisle.
But we need to start small.
You didn’t expect your child to walk all the way across the room the very first time they took a step or two.
You expected them to take a step or two for awhile.
Same with this skill.
We need to practice (A LOT) before we can get through a 60 minute trip to Costco.
In one of my favorite books, Overcoming Autism, Lynn Koegel says,
“Appropriate replacement behaviors need to be practiced on a regular basis until they become easy and automatic. The child must be secure in his use of the new, appropriate behavior before he’ll completely give up an old behavior he’s grown used to. He’ll need your help and the help of others to teach and reinforce the new behaviors until they become natural.”
We need to provide a lot of opportunities to practice behaving appropriately at the store.
It’s going to take time. This is not a quick fix.
How To Do a Practice Trip to The Grocery Store
- Decide on your starting place (touching the cart, sitting in the cart for 2 minutes, getting 1-2 items, etc). This is based on what your child can do successfully RIGHT NOW.
- Have your reinforcers (or sensory-blocking items) ready (candy, crackers, headphones, hat, glasses, etc). Make sure to have 3-5 items and make sure they are favorite items.
- Complete your starting point. What was your starting place from #1? Do that!
- Reinforce your child as soon as it’s done.
- Get out!
That’s it! Do those 5 steps for as long as it takes for you and your child to feel comfortable and successful. Then you can move to the next step.
Step Five: Move On When You’re Ready
Maybe that’s moving from just touching the cart to picking your child up, putting him in the cart, and then taking him right back out.
Maybe your child has to tolerate sitting in the cart for 2 minutes while you walk to where their favorite candy is.
You’ll feel like this is going slowly, but that’s ok!
Your child didn’t learn to walk in one day.
Many skills take a long time to teach and learn — tying shoes, eating with utensils, riding a bike, talking, going on the potty.
It can be very frustrating and disheartening when it feels like your child is the only one who has a tantrum each time you go to the grocery store.
I’m here to tell you that you are definitely not the only one.
I’ve been the parent who abandoned the full cart at the store.
I’ve been the parent getting the nasty looks.
I’ve pretended that screaming child on the ground isn’t mine.
And at the time my tantrum thrower was doing his worst, online shopping wasn’t available!!
Here are a few other things to think about before tackling tantrums in the grocery store:
- Is this even something you want to work on right now?
- If not, that’s 100% fine. Tackle it when you’re ready.
- Online shopping is available in many stores right now. If you don’t have the time or resources to teach this right now, that’s a great option for a lot of parents.
- Read my post on how to prioritize behaviors for more tips.
- Do you have another adult that can help you during these trips?
- Other parent, neighbor, baby-sitter, grandma, early intervention provider, etc.
- Is there a time of day when your child might do better?
- Is it possible to do these teaching sessions when your child is fed and not tired? I do much better during these times!!
- Visual supports can be very useful.
I can’t promise you that your child will love the store and be sitting in the cart like an angel.
No one can promise that! And it’s not expected!
Being out in the community is something that even our youngest kiddos with autism will need to learn and they can learn it!!
It takes a lot of time and practice, but all of that effort you put in initially will pay off big time in the end!
What struggles do you have with your child at the store? What worked well for you and your child?
I’d love to hear about it! Send me a comment and let me know!