Shopping With Special Needs: The Need for Understanding
He did great today. He really did, and so did I. Even with the “minor” setback in the self-checkout lane and the unwelcome placement of the DVD display. Let me take you grocery shopping. I promise you, it will be nothing like you have ever experienced in your life. And it’s true, nothing is exaggerated, nothing is fabricated, and nothing is based on a novel. its truth, unadulterated reality. You will cheer, you will laugh, and you will cry. I want to let you in not just so you can see what it’s like but so that I don’t have to take this trip alone. Ready? Climb on in lets head to Meijer.
The parking lot is hopping; it’s Saturday night, and I begin to feel the anxiety set in. I begin to scour the parking lot looking to the handicap spots to see if one is available. Ahhh yes, two spots in just in front of the door, success. (Even now I struggle to push back the guilt I feel over taking a handicapped spot for someone who truly is handicapped even as I look at my son in the back seat chewing on a plastic spoon and wearing noise-canceling headphones it’s hard to think of him as handicapped.
He can walk, heck he can even play hockey, but he runs. He runs fast and far. It’s safety.) Next, I search for a handicapped shopping cart. Nope, nothing around. My heart beats a bit faster and I reach for the last normal sized cart that sits alone, wet from the rain next to the long line of small carts. Yess!! It’s as if God knew we were coming and warded everyone off. Another potential disaster averted.
As we begin to walk into the store, I pat my pocket to make sure my phone is with us. Thank you to Meijer for having free WiFi just in case a meltdown ensues. I do the quick scan to see how busy the store looks. I look left to see how busy the checkout lanes are, I look up to see how busy the deli is (quickly deciding we won’t be getting any lunch meat today) and do a quick scan at everyone in the produce section. Do they look judgmental? Are they staring at my nine-year-old wearing headphones and sucking his thumb and occasionally licking the wet cart?
I choose to give him the chance to walk through the store with me as this is one of the very few times. It will be just he and I on an outing. He starts out strong—actually surprising me. But people are watching and staring, and I can feel my face start getting warm. I’m sweating. Fearful of a meltdown. He walked past the apples, stops, points and says “apple.” “Oh you want an apple? Okay baby, choose the ones you want. Here here’s a bag.” Shocked that he did this, I stood there smiling as he opened the bag and picked out two awesome looking apples and placed them in the cart! In my head, I was celebratory dancing.
As we walked he would occasionally yell out and moan as he does and people would stare at his headphones, but it was getting easier. He was picking out the right foods off the shelves as I told him to. He was SHOPPING!!! He picked out his few favorite things deviating from the list. He picked out a jar of pickles, Lucky Charms cereal, Minion mac and cheese, and freeze pops (you know the ones in the plastic tubes). We were surviving and I was beaming!
Until that is, the DVD display at the end of one of the aisle decided to join the party. Oh man, I had been to this store many times prior and had never taken note of this. How could I have missed it? His eyes locked on it and that was it. He darted to it. My face, I could feel it, was on fire. I knew what was about to ensue. Of course, there was a couple standing next to it talking. I ran behind him he already had one in his had, and I knew the battle was about to ensue. I tried to grab it from him as he screamed and threw himself on the floor. The couple just stood and stared. I kinda felt bad for them for having to witness this. All I could say to him was “Please not here, not now, please Aiden, No!” I tried three times to pick him up but now he’s just too big.
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Quickly in my head I went through every scenario possible. I decided just to let him hold it. I walked him back to the cart as he clutched the $25 dollar DVD in his hand. “As long as he doesn’t open it we are okay because God knows I can’t afford to pay $25 for it.” I decided it’s best at this point to put him in the cart. I only needed one more thing, a replacement toothbrush from the one he found and chewed on before throwing it on the ground outside next to the trampoline.
As we embarked down the toothbrush aisle, I looked around and found us alone. I decided this is just as good a time as any to try to get that DVD away from him. I put my hands in front of his face between him and the DVD and count 1…2…3, and I took it away quickly replacing it with my iPhone, Peppa Pig already playing on YouTube and what do you know, no yelling! No tantrum! Success! A sigh of relief came over me, but I knew we weren’t back in the truck yet. We had one last hurdle.
The checkout lane was empty! There was no one behind us even. Quickly I scanned all the items as my nine-year-old sat sideways in the child seat of the cart watching Peppa Pig with his headphones on and thumb in his mouth. It was all scanned and paid for by the time someone came behind us in line. I just had to bag it and get it home, and this trip was a success! I began to sigh with relief when it hit me. I knew that smell. Aiden had pooped himself in the cart Not just a small one either it was runny, all up his back and was dripping onto the floor! I stood there as my mind raced. What now! He has been potty trained for six months, and I no longer carry wipes, and he doesn’t wear diapers. Being the resourceful person I am, I quickly thought how can I cover this so no one sees? How do I contain this? Plastic bags!
That’s all I had! I took one placed it in the cart under him put one quickly around his back and one over his pants I grabbed two more for the road and practically ran out of the store! I got back to the truck, quickly loaded the back of the truck with all the groceries and lined his seat with the extra bags I had, put him in his booster seat and buckled him in. I got into the truck, took my phone back and gave him the DVD I had bought him earlier in the day at the Salvation Army, and I just sat there, staring at the handicapped sign ahead of me and sighed. I whispered aloud, “I guess this spot IS for us, I will never feel guilty for parking here ever again.”
So the next time you go grocery shopping and see a parent of a child (typical or not) struggling with their child remember this story and offer a smile. Offer a “hello” or a kind word just to let us know you see us because trust me these trips are tough, and for some, they are downright scary. The courage it takes some of us actually to take them is insurmountable. Never take for granted your quiet boring trips to the grocery store and if you do find them boring you aren’t paying attention to your surroundings. Don’t just pass by the person next to you that may be in need of help or a kind word. Offer them grace, offer them kindness, offer them encouragement because it’s the little things that carry the farthest.
Sue Kerstetter is a mother of three, one of whom is listed as severe on the autism spectrum. She holds a bachelors degree in psychology and has worked as an inpatient psychiatric technician for 13 years. Her life’s ambition is to make the world a more accepting place for those affected by autism.
This article was featured in Issue 78 – Back to School Success