A reader asked me to describe what it means to shop the autistic way, and this seems like the season for it. I hate shopping almost as much as my son does, for different reasons. I rarely find anything I like, whether I’m looking for clothes that fit, food without garbage ingredients, or just about anything that is actually well made. But for Nick, it’s a nightmarish mix of sensory input, dizzying details and way too many choices.
So here’s how we do it and how I am teaching him to do it himself. Please bear in mind that he is 14 and I am writing about how it is now, which is different from how it was when he was small. Back then, the goal was to get the job done however possible. Now, the goal is to work with him to figure out what works, and to teach him how to get the job done himself as he moves toward adulthood.
Strategy #1: Shop online. You can buy anything online now. Our latest purchase was pants, after the store where we’ve been buying the one kind of pants Nick will wear stopped carrying them. I searched for the brand and style and ended up ordering them from the brand’s website where they actually had better sizing options available than they’d had in the store. They were reasonably priced and shipping was minimal. Win/win!
Shoes are another thing we order online whenever possible, once Nick has suffered through a trip to a shoe store to find some that he likes. Shoe styles don’t change that often, at least not the sneakers Nick wears, so I can usually find the exact same shoe online when he needs the next size. There are some sites that offer free shipping and free returns, so if I can’t find the same shoe and he can’t handle a shoe store visit, I can order several pairs for him to try on and return whatever doesn’t work. The shoes do cost more because of course the shipping costs are rolled into the price, but returns are hassle-free with labels they provide, and I budget for it by spending less elsewhere. (I’m dressed head to toe in Thrift Store Chic, myself, and happily so!) Eventually he will need to decide if his budget can allow for it.
Strategy #2: Shop with a list and do not deviate from that list. When Nick and I must go into a store, I always have a list of what we need and we go directly to those items and then directly to the checkout. I don’t stop to browse or ponder. This not only minimizes our time in the store and thus Nick’s exposure to sensory input, it also keeps us within our budget as we don’t spend impulsively. If the line at checkout is long, Nick is old enough to wait for me outside. Eventually, he will have to wait in lines himself, but he can choose times of day when it’s not so crowded or shop with a friend who can wait in line for him. Freed from the notion that shopping must go a certain way, he can be creative in how he gets the task done without harming himself.
Strategy #2: Get very familiar with one or two stores and shop there whenever possible. As much as I prefer to spend my money at small local businesses, the big stores where you can buy everything from food and clothing to garden supplies and tools are extremely practical. We also have a small market a block away from home where we do most of our grocery shopping. I can actually send Nick there with a list nowadays because he is familiar with it, it’s never crowded, the checkers know him, and he likes to be useful.
For some people, farmers’ markets are a great alternative to stores. Karla likes them because they’re outdoors and the food is interesting. Nick is not a big fan because they can be chaotic and require too much interaction. It’s important to explore your area for options and figure out what suits you.
Strategy #4: Allow plenty of time. Nick loves to go fishing and this means that he frequently needs to buy fishing stuff like hooks, lures, and line. We have a store near us that stocks a huge supply of fishing equipment—good because he can always find what he needs, but not so good because it’s a huge overwhelming place. When we go in there, he likes to be left alone to look by himself for a while rather than immediately approaching an employee for help. He prefers me to be nearby but not right next to him. If he can’t find something, he will eventually ask someone, but working up to that can take 15 minutes or more. I plan for that time (I always have crossword puzzles on my phone to pass the time) and don’t pressure him to pick up the pace.
Strategy #5: Use protection every time! By that I mean, of course, sunglasses and earplugs. Don’t underestimate the impact of the buzzing, flickering lights (I can’t see them flicker but Karla can), the noise of the PA system and constant chatter of other customers. We can’t do anything about the smells of things like cleaning products and people’s perfumes, but minimizing the other input can make the rest tolerable just long enough to get what we need and go.
Strategy #6: Carry cards to deflect eager employees. You can order custom business cards that say whatever you want and keep them in your pocket in to hand to store employees when you walk in. Karla has some that say something like “I’m autistic and I would appreciate if you left me alone until I am ready to talk to you.”
Strategy #7: Forget the mall. I know that some people go to malls for fun. I know that recreational shopping is a common American pastime. I don’t understand it myself (remember, I hate shopping too!) but just understand this: malls are not fun for people with sensory sensitivities or those who are overwhelmed by choices. If you have an autistic child or friend, please don’t ever say the words “let’s go to the mall!” If you happen to know one of the rare autistics who enjoys the mall, let them suggest it to you.
We all have to do things we don’t want to do sometimes, but we don’t necessarily have to do it the way society expects us to. Think and shop outside the box.