Running errands are part of everyday normal life. However, for autistic children, such everyday events may cause great anxiety, sometimes leading to aggressive behavior. Children with the autism spectrum disorder need predictability. They need to be prepared ahead of time if a change in their usual schedule is about to occur.

Shopping with Autistic Child - Tantrums
Fig 1: Shopping with an Autistic Child

I have a few tried and tested techniques that you adopt do to make running errands enjoyable for your child. Follow these simple steps and going out shopping with your autistic child could actually be fun!

Preparation is the Key!

First and foremost prepare them for the upcoming change in schedule:

  • Always, start the day before.
  • At dinner time mention that tomorrow you and your child are going grocery shopping. Nothing more needs to be said at the time.
  • At bedtime remind your child that tomorrow will be an exciting day going to the grocery store with mommy.
  • You probably will not get a reaction from your child at that time but they are already beginning to process the information and prepare themselves for the upcoming schedule change.
  • In the morning remind them of the great event that is taking place today.
  • It is not yet time to divulge the all the details, your child’s brain is already processing at its full capacity. More details would only distract them

Ever Wondered How an Autistic Child With Sensory Issues Feel at a Mall?

Check out the simulation below, this is exactly how autistic kids with sensory overload feels in a crowded mall. So next time your child has a meltdown, try to understand what he or she may be going through.

Get a Comfy Backpack

shopping with autistic child
Fig2: Get a backpack

In order to keep your child focused, stick to you and not running about the store, I always use a backpack for the child. An ordinary backpack filled with books or something heavy but not so heavy they cannot comfortably walk around with it on. However, make sure the straps are padded appropriately.

Once you arrive at the store tell your child you need him/her to wear the backpack in order to help you. It also keeps your child in focus and gives him/her a purpose for being in the store. Don’t ask a question (like, would you like to wear this one?). Just tell her that she needs to wear it and strap it on her!

Children on the autism spectrum have sensory issues. The application of weight or pressure on their shoulders tends to have a calming effect.

You may observe a little fussing at the beginning. You need to be assertive and quick in placing the backpack, no questions and begin walking. As your child walks more and more, the pressure calms the nerves in the shoulders and your child will feel like they are having a deep massage. They will enjoy this sensation and follow you around the store.

The Applied Pressure Technique

This concept of pressure calming children on the autism spectrum can be used almost anywhere. I have a vest (an old swimming vest that I refashioned) which is filled with rice and beans. Whenever a child gets a little wired I place the vest on them, just like the backpack, and within minutes you will see your child calm down.

Fig 3: Pressure Vests for Autism
Fig 3: Pressure Vests for Autism

I compliment this backpack or vest therapy with a bean bag chair. Children with sensory issues will find a bean bag chair offers them many opportunities to feel sensations without really moving around. This coupled with the vest provide a safe haven and calming environment for your child. You can even make a small lap square filled with rice or beans to put on your child’s lap while they are eating or watching TV. It is truly amazing how this deep pressure sensation is so calming.

Shopping with Autistic Child
Fig 4: Shopping with an Autistic Child

I had one particular little four-year-old boy who would come and tell me he thought it was time to put on his vest and “relax” in his bean bag chair. It took him about two weeks to come to understand that “relaxing” is what he was doing. Now you have tied an emotion to a sensation which he will remember because it felt good!


Mary Alexa
Mary Alexa

Hello everyone my name is Mary. I studied at University of Michigan under Dr. Richard Solomon, founder of the P.L.A.Y. Project for Children on the Autism Spectrum. I live in the Dominican Republic working at an International School with children on the autism spectrum. Empowering parents with knowledge and techniques to support their children’s needs as well as the needs of the entire family and community has been my main focus for the past seven years. Read More

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