The Walmart Woes: Help for Over-Stimulated Kids on the Autism Spectrum

When you take a child with Aspergers or High-Functioning Autism (HFA) to a large retail store (e.g., Walmart, Home Depot, Best Buy, the Mall, etc.), you are risking replacing your serenity with a migraine. These children tend to become over-stimulated when exposed to large, noisy crowds – which may result in meltdowns or shutdowns.

To be able to manage your youngster’s behavior when going to a busy shopping center, it is always a good idea to take her preference into consideration. Identify the type of environmental conditions that make her upset. Usually, bright lights, huge crowds, long lines, weird smells, and loud noises are among the most common offenders. Take note of these and identify the places which she could find particularly stressful.

Of course, there will be certain situations (e.g., funerals, weddings, birthdays, holidays, etc.) when you will be compelled to bring your youngster with you to places which are outside his comfort zone. In cases like these, it is a good idea to let him know ahead of time ‘where’ you will be going, ‘when’ you are going, and ‘how long’ you will be there. In this way, he will know what to expect. When possible, it will also be helpful to show him some photos of where you are going (Google Earth works great for this). If you do not have any photos with you, you can always do a search online.

The main thing to remember when you bring your youngster along with you is to always have a plan. Do your research ahead of time and come up with options and alternatives to help make her feel comfortable and at ease. Also be prepared to leave when she is having a bad time.

Super stores can be overwhelming places for kids on the spectrum, but that doesn't mean you can never go shopping, but it does mean you have to plan carefully.

These five tips will make your trip shorter, smoother, and less stressful:

1. Consider bringing another grown-up. Shop with your spouse, your sister, your most understanding friend. A spare adult can (a) wait outside with your child while you run into stores, (b) supervise him while you try on clothes, or (c) take him (while he is approaching a meltdown state) to the car while you finish up.

2. Have an escape route. Maybe you miscalculated your youngster's tolerance. Maybe you're both having a bad day. Maybe there's something extra stressful at the Mall (e.g., Girl Scouts selling cookies at every entrance and exit). Whatever the reason, if your youngster loses the ability to behave in an acceptable way, don't argue or cajole or bribe or threaten or whine. Just get the hell out of there. Right now. Be aware, every moment, of how you are going to do this - if needed.

3. Make a plan. Figure out what you can reasonably do within the time limit you've set. Be realistic. Do not count on being able to rush around frantically, or find everything you want instantly. Schedule yourself for a few stops, then out. And choose a time when the store is least likely to be packed with customers. Take a pass on those big sale days, or find a babysitter and leave your youngster at home.

4. Pack supplies. If your youngster has an iPod, this is a good time to bring it along. If you have a bag of tricks for your youngster, make sure it's in your purse or pack. Snacks that won't make too much mess and a juice box or two can keep children busy in a crunch. Books, portable CD and DVD players, travel games, toy cars, etc. – whatever can be easily toted and deployed to distract – can be brought along.

5. Set a time limit. Figure out how long your youngster can control his behavior in a noisy, active, distracting environment. Subtract 15 minutes. Set that amount of time as your absolute, unbreakable deadline for getting in and out of that place.

Good luck …you’ll need it!

==> Preventing Meltdowns and Tantrums in Kids on the Autism Spectrum

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