Teaching Functional Living Skills to Children with Autism at the Grocery Store

We hear over and over again how children with autism may need hundreds or even thousands of opportunities to practice a skill before acquiring it. It’s important to keep this fact in mind when it comes to functional living skills (e.g. making the bed, cooking a meal, etc.). Many of the parents I work with prefer to focus on academic skills rather than functional living skills. Some feel that by focusing on functional living skills, they’re giving up on larger goals for their child, such as being placed in a general education environment, having the opportunity to go to college, and/or having the opportunity to have a career.

I always encourage parents to focus on both academic and functional living skills. While it may seem unnecessary to start thinking about teaching a nine year old how to grocery shop, it’s really just providing them with many, many opportunities to practice the skill. Typically developing children “practice” grocery shopping from a young age by watching their parents and playing “store” with friends, but children with autism are unlikely to observe their parents while they’re shopping or to play such games as “store” without explicit instruction. By practicing the skill with your child early on, you’re promoting future independence.

You can practice these skills when you are in the grocery store with your child, and you may just find that your child enjoys shopping. (Grocery shopping is a favorite activity for two of my current students.) It may be beneficial for you to just start out with one skill, choosing the one you think your child is the most likely to experience success with or that your child will be the most motivated by.

  • Choosing if you need a cart or a basket (Is our list long or short? Do we have big or small items?)
  • Using a grocery list (reading the list, crossing off items already placed in cart/basket)
  • Using supermarket signs to find items (understanding categories, knowing where to look for signs)
  • Greeting cashier
  • Choosing good fruit or vegetables (looking for bruises, identifying ripeness)
  • Giving money to cashier
  • Accepting change from cashier
  • Taking bags when it’s time to leave
  • Comparison shopping (looking at unit price, comparing prices of two brands)
  • Making sure you received correct change
  • Returning an item that is damaged

You shouldn’t limit these skills to just the grocery store either. All of these skills are useful in department stores, pharmacies, book stores, and more. Your child may be more motivated to use these skills at the book store or a toy store. You can help your child learn the skills there, then generalize them to other types of stores.

If you need help getting started, you should ask your child’s teacher or therapist to accompany you on your first trip. They can help you identify the appropriate steps to put your child on the path to independence.