Understanding Autism-Related Shopping Meltdowns

Children do not always go along with the shopping plan easily. Autism-related meltdowns can make shopping even more difficult. Understanding autism-related shopping meltdowns can help you and your child experience less stress during a shopping trip.

Carefully observe your child’s triggers

Observe what happens before your child has difficulties. Most children are more likely to have a meltdown if they are hungry or tired. A common trigger for children with autism also includes sensory overload. The lights, sounds, smells, and crowds from a shopping trip can trigger a meltdown. Shopping at the popular grocery store on a Saturday may be more stressful for your child because it is loud and chaotic. You might observe that the smaller, less-crowded grocery store does not trigger a meltdown.

Understand the difference between meltdowns and tantrums

Both meltdowns and tantrums can include screaming, crying, falling on the floor, self-injury, and destruction. But, meltdowns and tantrums happen for different reasons. I define a meltdown as the visual display of a child becoming overwhelmed in response to a trigger. Meltdowns do not immediately stop when a child is given what they want or when they are taken out of an unpleasant situation. The intensity of emotion during a meltdown may take a minute (or more) to decrease.

Children throw tantrums to gain access to something (attention, food, toy,  etc.). Children also throw tantrums to avoid something (unpleasant activity, ending play, bedtime, mealtime, etc.). You can usually stop a tantrum by giving the child what they want (leaving the store, that special toy, attention, etc.). A child having a tantrum may also watch for your reaction to see if the tantrum is working.

Conduct an experiment

Parents can carefully observe and implement systematic changes to decrease the likelihood of a meltdown. If you know your child’s triggers, you may be able to modify the trigger. For example, if a change in your child’s drive home from school triggers a meltdown, plan to give him or her ample notice (verbally or visually) that a shopping trip will occur. If the grocery store’s fluorescent lights are too bright, consider ways to reduce the child’s exposure to the lights.

Understanding autism-related shopping meltdowns gets us one step closer to improving your errand-running experience! On my next blog, I will provide tips to prevent meltdowns.

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Dr. Mariel Cannady

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