Grocery Shopping Can Be a Learning Opportunity

Categories: ASD and DD, Child-focused

By Brittany Juban, Ph.D., LABA, BCBA-D                                                      
[This column was published in the West Springfield Republican on October 27, 2022.]

With each passing year, it seems there are more convenient, high-tech services available to streamline the grocery shopping process. From shopping and delivery services that bring the items on your list right to your door, to other pick-up services, there are many options that can make our lives a little easier.

For parents of children with autism and other special needs, these services can be a godsend because they can help them avoid stressful situations that may result in meltdowns or other challenging behavior. 

Despite these tempting conveniences, don’t overlook the fact that shopping in an actual grocery store can provide many opportunities to teach children with autism functional skills such as waiting, counting, following written or verbal directions, safety skills, and more. Not only will those skills come in handy during unanticipated but necessary trips to the store that cannot wait, but also during other community outings and day-to-day life. 

Consider preparing for your next trip to the grocery store with your child who has special needs by using the principles of applied behavior analysis, or ABA, to develop a few strategies to help turn a stressful experience into a pleasant family chore with many opportunities for skill development.

Pre-teach: Explain to your child what may happen during the trip. Visual aids such as picture schedules and social stories can help you in listing and depicting what to expect. For example, what items will you buy, what your child's role will be in the trip such as pushing the cart or holding someone’s hand, and what the steps are during the checkout process. Teaching your child some basic safety skills beforehand such as “stay with me,” “stop,” “come here,” and “hands down” can also go a long way in the grocery store.

Plan: Start with small, quick trips. Plan a trip with your child and let them know what you will be shopping for. Consider having a reward such as a small toy or favorite food in the car to give your child after a successful trip. This will reduce the expectation that you will need to buy something special every time you go to the store, while still providing valuable reinforcement that will let your child know they did a great job. Decide how you will manage behavioral incidents and have an exit plan for those instances where you don’t feel comfortable staying and shopping.

Practice, practice, practice: Start off with a list of small, non-essential items and make the first shopping trip a short one. Practice the safety skills you have taught your child and don’t be afraid to use your exit plan. Consider having your child be a part of the check-out process in any way that they are able – such as placing the items on the conveyor belt.

Finally, be patient with your child and yourself. Be okay with letting go of expectations for yourself and your family whenever possible. Keep in mind that your shopping strategies may vary greatly depending on your child’s cognitive and language ability and tolerance to change. For guidance specific to your child, please contact a Board Certified Behavior Analyst, or BCBA, for consultation. 

Brittany Juban, Ph.D., LABA, BCBA-D, is Clinical Director at the May Center School for Autism and Developmental Disabilities in West Springfield. She can be contacted at

About May Institute
May Institute is a nonprofit organization that is a national leader in the field of applied behavior analysis and evidence-based interventions, serving autistic individuals and individuals with other developmental disabilities, brain injury, neurobehavioral disorders, and other special needs. Founded nearly 70 years ago, we provide a wide range of exceptional educational and rehabilitative services across the lifespan. May Institute operates five schools for children and adolescents with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and other developmental disabilities. For more information, call 800.778.7601 or visit