By Holly Melton, contributing writer
If you’ve never really thought about all of the overwhelming sensations that a simple trip to the grocery store or shopping mall contains, you might find Lynne Soraya’s article in Psychology Today, entitled Shopping While Autistic, enlightening. In it she chronicles a trip to her local grocery store.
Ms Soraya is an adult dealing with Sensory Processing Disorder. She has had decades to learn how to cope with the overwhelming sights, sounds, and smells of shopping, and she somehow manages to get through it, but just barely. For children, the sensory experience can often lead to a complete breakdown.
The problem has become so overwhelming for so many that last year the ASDA Living Store in Manchester England has actually instituted a “quiet hour” to help customers cope. During this time, they turned off the music and televisions, and even the escalators in an attempt to help those suffering from sensory disorders be more comfortable while shopping.
Likewise, Nemours Children’s Hospital in Orlando has created an ER program that offers a separate, quieter waiting room complete with headphones and sensory toys for those who need a break from the chaos of the normal ER experience.
But most public places don’t offer special accommodation to those whose sensory processing can make the whole world feel overwhelming.
If you have a child or loved one who suffers from sensory overload, you likely know that shopping trips can be difficult and stressful at best. About one out of every 20 people is struggling with some form of sensory processing disorder, so it’s important to remember that you’re not alone.
Here are some tips that may help avoid an overload:
1. Plan and Discuss Ahead of Time
As with so many other things, it’s a good idea to plan shopping trips ahead of time. Know exactly what you need to accomplish and where you need to go. It may be best to rank your errands by importance, so that the most crucial get taken care of first, in case the trip has to be cut short.
As a caregiver for someone with a sensory processing disorder, you may find it helpful to keep a journal detailing the circumstances of each episode. Where were you? What was going on around you? How long did the episode last? How were you able to soothe the stress? This will help you spot patterns and avoid places that often lead to overload.
When you’re planning any kind of outing that’s not part of the set routine, giving advance warning can go a long way toward establishing a routine and avoiding stress. Rae Jacobson on ChildMind.org recommends giving as much notice as possible. “Advance warning gives kids a structure they can rely on and get comfortable with. It also allows ample time for you to work together to plan sensory friendly approaches to new activities.”
For some, taking a virtual tour of the shopping area you’ll be visiting may be helpful. Some store websites offer 3D walk throughs of their stores. For others, it might be useful to take photos and video with your phone so that your loved one can familiarize themselves with the store before ever setting foot in it.
2. Have Open Communication During the Trip
Communication during the trip is also important. If you notice your loved one is beginning to exhibit signs of overload, it’s a good idea to calmly speak to them before taking their hand. This way you can avoid escalating the situation by startling them. When trying to calm them down, try to stick with short, simple questions that can be answered with a yes or a no. These are often easier to respond to during an overload.
Some of those who suffer from sensory processing disorders may not be able to verbally communicate about what triggers them. Lucia Murillo of Autism Speaks notes “one child might be able to simply say “I need a break.” Another might need to learn a sign – such as hands over ears. Picture communication systems are yet another option.“
If, on the other hand, your loved one is able to discuss this, you may find it helpful to employ a safe word. When they begin to feel uncomfortable, they can just use their safe word, and at that point you can both retreat to a calmer, more comfortable environment. In addition to providing an escape, this can help your loved one feel some control over the situation, which in turn may reduce anxiety about the trip before you even leave your home.
3. Avoid Overwhelming Areas
Of course, some areas of your local shopping center are likely to be more difficult than others. It’s often best to avoid those areas entirely. Or, if you have to go to a shop that you know often triggers an episode, consider bringing along a friend or relative who can wait with your loved one in a more comfortable area while you shop.
It’s easy to notice that places like arcades, with all of their noise and flashing lights, can be a problem for someone with a sensory processing disorder, since these can be a little overwhelming for the rest of us at times too. But in addition to sights and sounds, scents can cause big problems too. Avoid perfume counters and heavily scented stores like candle shops. You should also stay away from busy children’s play areas, and stores with busy light displays or (for some) rows of televisions, showing dozens of active pictures.
If possible shop at a low-traffic time, so as to encounter fewer crowds. This could mean hitting the mall during the day on a weekday, or avoiding the crowds on Black Friday or other big shopping days. If you know there’s a big event going on at the local mall, it may be best to wait until it’s over before venturing in.
4. Bring Along Helpful Aides
There are also things you can bring along with you to help your loved one cope with the stimulation of a busy shopping trip. Start out with allowing him or her to pick out their own clothing. This way you can be sure they are as comfortable as possible before you even set out.
Many have found that earplugs or noise cancelling headphones can help drown out overwhelming sounds that could otherwise lead to an episode. Amy at Aspified notes “I still wear [noise cancelling headphones] to reduce overstimulating noise even when I leave the house to go the store or wherever.”
For visual stimulation caused by the glare of too many fluorescent lights, Lisa Emrich, a health guide on HealthCentral.com, recommends polarized sunglasses or a hat with a brim such as a baseball cap.
With children, it may be helpful to bring along a soft stuffed toy or other favorite item which they can try to focus on when they need to cool down. Adults may find a small sachet filled with a soothing scent like lavender or chamomile to be helpful.
5. Keep Your Trip Short
One important thing to remember is that these stimuli build up over time, and the more time spent in unfamiliar or uncomfortable surroundings, the more likely you’re heading for an overload. Keep trips short, gradually working your way up to longer adventures or busier areas. It’s better to do a few quick trips with breaks in between than to try to cram everything into one longer outing.
Above all, you’ll need to remain calm and patient, and be flexible. This can often be easier said than done, but a bit of patience and understanding may go a long way toward helping your family member or loved one feel more comfortable and supported.
If you’re interested in learning more about sensory processing disorders, you might find the following books helpful:
“The Out-of-Sync Child: Recognizing and Coping with Sensory Integration Dysfunction“ by Carol Stock Kranowitz
“Sensory Overload” by P.A. Morris
“Why Does Izzy Cover Her Ears? Dealing with Sensory Overload” written and illustrated by Jennifer Veenendall