Four children shopping in Walt Disney World with autism

So often, our children are in crisis, and people are cruel or judgemental instead of supportive. I’ve dealt with so many mad customers because my autistic child was experiencing sensory overwhelm and in crisis. I’m hopeful it is only because many people don’t quite understand how to support people with autism while shopping. Let’s change the conversation. We need to help people with unique needs and make angry public ‘shoppers’ stand down.

Three children coloring at a public event, one with autism

What is the meaning of autism spectrum disorder?

Autism spectrum disorder describes the variation in the type and severity of symptoms that people on the spectrum experience. ASD is present across all racial, ethnic, and economic groups. ASD is a lifelong condition, and supporting autistic people with services can improve their quality of life and ability to function.

Some autistic people prefer to be called autistic, while others like ‘person first’ descriptors. People-first means stating that someone is a “person with autism.” There is no universal answer, so check with the person first before making assumptions.

What is an autism “meltdown”?

An escalation in mood is usually due to the fight response (fight vs. flight). A person with autism cannot help it and does not mean to hurt anyone. The terminology “meltdown” is often used but can be considered offensive to some. The term sensory overload may explain what is happening better.

What is sensory overload?

Sensory overload is an intense reaction to feeling overwhelmed by stimuli like noise, light, humming, or demands. In these cases, the brain’s ability to filter out or ignore stimuli doesn’t work. The brain hears the hum lights, smells the intense perfume of the cashier, or sees the bright spotlights in the store. When the brain receives more input from senses that it can process, sensory overload occurs. This process feels like the brain is being flooded and overcome.

Sensory overload can result in outbursts ranging from crying or screaming to physical reactions like biting, kicking, or hitting. It can occur as restlessness, the need to close eyes or cover ears, or a strong desire to escape the situation. However, there is nothing wrong with these behaviors. It would be best not to scold someone experiencing this situation, as it is genuinely traumatic. Sensory overload merely demonstrates increased levels of anxiety and distress.

People with autism may have communication difficulties that can make expressing their specific needs challenging—a lack of communication results in big feelings like frustration or anger. After sensory overload passes, it can feel exhausting or like brain fog.

What implicit biases surround autism spectrum disorder?

An implicit bias is when your brain makes an unconscious connection, belief, or attitude towards an entire group of people. A study found that educating people without autism about the challenges and strengths of autistic people reduces the misunderstandings and stigma surrounding autism.

However, implicit biases by those same people about autism were challenging to overcome, and they often associated autistic people with unpleasant characteristics. Reducing unconscious bias about autism spectrum disorder (ASD) may improve inclusion in social events.

We have to do better to support people with autism. In this case, implicit biases about persons with disabilities are pervasive. The public often ascribes specific qualities of people with special needs or autism to all members of that group. Stereotyping is not acceptable, even in the name of “cultural competence.”

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Sensory Challenges while Shopping in Public

Sensory overwhelm in public is a significant issue with autism and other sensory disorders. There are loud noises, bright lights, unpredictable background noises, and events that might cause a break from the plan.

Supporting people with autism is key to providing an inclusive shopping experience. Unfortunately, the primary sentiment I’ve encountered when my son is shopping with invisible disabilities is disgust. With hidden disabilities, people say, “he doesn’t look autistic” or “why is he acting like that?” Bullying is cruel, and it is incredibly ableist to assume that the person should be acting differently.

What to do when Encountering Sensory Overload

Some stores provide sensory-friendly shopping accommodations for people with autism. *** You can also shop early in the morning or late at night to avoid crowds and lines.

What strategies can be used to help ASD individuals cope in everyday situations?

  • Help the person with autism to avoid triggering situations. Talk to the person about what triggers sensory overload for them. For example, does changing routine without warning trigger a person? Create a plan B in case of the unexpected change. If someone experiences
  • Give them the space to choose whether they want to explain what is happening and how it feel. Regardless, validate their feelings and experiences as sensory overload is very real.
  • Inform people who support you (or them) of the possibility of sensory overload and ask for their support.
  • Provide a communication system to enable your loved one to commnicate regardless of how verbal they are. Even incredibly verbal people may struggle to speak when they are so incredibly stressed.
  • Get tools to help them stim and get read of the excess stress in the moment. Other tools may help to distract from the extnesive stimuli. These tools include fidget toys, stress balls, and chewelry.
  • Seek help from a doctor, occupational therapist, or another specialist to navigate the experience.
  • Provide a quiet room, dark space, or headphones to minimize stimuli.

How do I make my shop autistic-friendly?

  • Decrease the sound level of music and the light level.
  • Ensure minimal crowds. Making an exclusive sensory shopping time will be the best way.
  • Be supportive because overstimulation happens. Train your staff for ways to minimize stimuli and avoid judgement.

How To Support a Person with Autism while Shopping

If you’re looking at how to support people with autism, you must realize that every person with autism is different. However, there are some steps you can take that may support the autistic person with sensory overwhelm while shopping.

What coping strategies can you suggest that might help an individual with autism?

These strategies are helpful both in shopping or other stressful situations like attending school or starting work. Preparing for the sensory overwhelm will eliminate some of the distress.

  • Practice makes perfect
  • Prepare a schedule
  • Ensure rest, hydration, and nourishment first
  • Identify and avoid triggers
  • Provide images or a social story about what to expect
  • Support the person with autism’s immediate emotional needs
  • Provide objects to help distract
  • Muffle sensory overload with headphones or sunglasses
  • Create an escape plan
  • Give them space to decompress later. In some cases, a weighted blanket may help them to decompress.
  • Encourage meditation, stimming, or whatever helps to soothe the stress of overstimulation

Stories about How to Support People With Autism while Shopping

I summarized a post from a friend who also has an autistic child.

As I got in the customer service line at Kohl’s yesterday, I saw that a woman told that she had to go to a nearby kiosk that could connect her online to complete her transaction. The woman had a toddler with her who kept trying to run away and kept touching everything. When the parent picked up the tot, they cried and threw a fit. The kiosk wasn’t working, and the woman was flustered, visibly shaking with frustration, and on the verge of tears.

Another woman who was shopping approached her, told her she knows how hard it is to shop with small children in tow, and then sat down with the child and kept her occupied and quiet. Finally, a worker came over to the kiosk and helped the mother resolve her issue. It was one simple, beautiful act of people supporting each other that improved my mood, and the mood of everyone surrounding us.

Remember that empathy makes a considerable difference in someone’s life. Sometimes those seemingly small acts of kindness are the significant ways to effect change in this world.

And we don’t have to go far. We can fix it right where we are. By supporting people with disabilities and their caregivers, you are truly changing the narrative that our kids face every day.

When Another Mom Saved US

I will never forget a similar moment at Blue Bayou in Disneyland. Our kiddos should have been over the moon- the restaurant overlooks the Pirates of the Caribbean ride. I was there with two young boys, ages 2 and 3. My oldest son was recently diagnosed with autism, and both were nonverbal.

My big kid kept bolting away from the table while my barely two-year-old was in his high chair, and I had my credit card in the holder. I’ve never felt so torn- if I ran after my 3-year-old, I abandoned my toddler and the credit card. I was between dining and ditching or crying.

A woman and her kid came and sat at the table with my highchair-bound baby while I chased my preschooler around the restaurant. She asked me what I wanted to leave for a tip and forged my signature.

I don’t remember what she looked like, but I think about her often. While she actually rescued my toddler that day, it felt like she saved me too.

Help Autistic Children to Look for the Helpers

As Mr. Rogers says, “When I was a boy, and I would see scary things in the news my mother would say to me ‘Look for the helpers, you will always find people who are helping.'” Mr. Rogers’ words held the crucial purpose of helping children feel safe. That’s a message and a pursuit that never goes out of style.

Suppose you have the opportunity to support people with autism while shopping, be the helper. Be a safe space- encourage inclusivity.

What has been your experience regarding autism and sensory overwhelm in public? How do you deal with angry shoppers? Have other people in public saved you, or have people been cruel?

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