Most of us probably get overwhelmed when shopping for the holidays in December. There is so much to buy and the whole experience is filled with music and lights and the overwhelming smells of those cinnamon brooms that seem to spill out of every store. As you can imagine, this entire process is much, much more difficult for people on the Autism spectrum. December is one of our busiest times at Autism Personal Coach. We wanted to share some of the insights our coaches have gleaned from supporting our clients as they navigate the retail world during this time of year.
Making Decisions? Start with a Budget
There are so many choices to make during the holidays. What presents to buy your family members? Where to buy them? How much to spend? When to go shopping so you get all of your shopping done in time for the holidays? When starting to make these decisions many individuals with Autism tend to be very sensitive. These individuals care very much about their loved ones and tend to want to buy gifts that are well beyond their means. That is why it is important to develop a holiday budget before making these spending decisions.
Once a budget is in place, it’s time to make a shopping plan. When we discuss planning to go shopping we are referring to backwards planning. So many times, individuals with Autism struggle with working memory and as a result struggle to determine how long it takes to get a task completed. Therefore, what ends up happening is they will do shopping “last minute”–and you know what happens in that scenario, right? Stores are out of targeted items. Lines are longer. Last minute can mean disaster!
Therefore, sitting down with an individual with Autism and planning to go shopping is very important. Once that has been done its time to go shopping! Unfortunately, the decision-making process doesn’t stop at this point. Our society has more and more “stuff” and that equates to more choices either in the store or online. Make sure your loved one understands that there will be more choices to make once they begin shopping!
Individuals with Autism in many cases struggle to generalize skills, meaning learning a skill in one environment and transferring that skill to another environment. Think about someone learning to successfully shop at Target, then going to Kohl’s when they haven’t shopped there before. There will be different products at Target compared to Kohl’s, there will be different decisions to be made, the transportation route will be different, as well as different sensory stimuli. If an adult with Autism isn’t somewhat comfortable and confident in going to that store, the holiday season is not the time to do it. Practice those skills in that store during the rest of the year to help make holiday shopping more successful.
Transportation is challenging for those that do or don’t drive. If you don’t drive you have to figure out transportation, which involves planning once again, a skill many individuals with Autism find challenging. The planning either involves taking public transportation or getting a family member/friend to take you to the store. If you are driving, this time of year it can be oh so stressful because there will be more cars on the road and as a result it will take longer to go to and return from shopping. And, of course, the parking lot can be a nightmare. In many cases this is not thought about prior to shopping and can be very frustrating and add further stress. When preparing to shop for the holidays, it’s important to discuss transportation and the increased stressors that will pop up for this part of the process.
If you have sensory hypersensitivities, then shopping during the holiday season may very well not be the most enjoyable experience. Stores are more crowded, which translates to more noise (even apart from the ringing bells from the charity workers!). The crowds mean more smells, the stores are decorated with scented candles, and individuals on the Autism spectrum are often extremely sensitive to fragrances like this. And, of course, the twinkling holiday lights everywhere can be overwhelming.
While some stores in recent years, like Toys R Us and Target, have offered a sensory friendly shopping day during the holiday season, this is much more the exception than the rule. There really isn’t much that can be done. Some things that individuals with Autism have done that have helped them include: shopping during off hours (not many of those during the holiday season), wearing noise cancelling headphones, bring fidgets or scents they like to help reduce their anxiety, or bring someone they trust who can help them identify if they are having sensory overload so they can take a break. If none of those suggestions help the adult with Autism, it may be time to go the online shopping route.
Communication is a consistent source of anxiety for adults with Autism and it is no different when it comes to holiday shopping. It’s important to talk with someone the person trusts (Autism coach, family member, or friend) to develop a plan to tackle the holiday shopping challenges. These challenges include speaking with store personnel. Individuals on the Autism spectrum might want to practice asking if an item is in stock, asking for directions to find something in the store, or other interactions that are likely to arise during shopping.
Hopefully some of these insights can help improve the experience of gift giving for you or a loved one on the Autism spectrum. Autism Personal Coach wishes everyone a very happy holiday season. We hope you’ll reach out if we can help you make this the best holiday season yet!