Change is Good!

While the thought of a trip might be daunting, taking your autistic child on a trip and changing the environment can actually be beneficial. The trip needs to be appropriate for your child’s level of tolerance. Before you decide to take a trip to Disney, for example, you should first think about what a trip to the supermarket is like.

Do you bring your child regularly to the supermarket and other large, over stimulating stores?

If the answer is NO, then read on, this section was created for you.

If the answer is yes, then skip to Trip Planning

Preparing your child for leaving a familiar environment is the hardest and most important first step. Let’s start with a simple example that everyone can do and should do on a regular basis.

A Trip To The Supermarket

You will need to outline the game plan for your child to create a sense of order and expectation, here is an example of a Plan:

  1. Write a simple outline of what you are going to do (i.e. first we are making our shopping list, then we are going to the store, then we are coming home, then we are having a snack).
  2. Make a list of what you want to buy at the store. Keep the list simple and with items that your child knows and would want (i.e. apples, chips, cookies).
  3. Keep the list and your time expectations short; ending on a positive note is important otherwise the experience will be remembered as negative and your child might exhibit behaviors as a means of escaping and filtering out the uncomfortable aspects of the trip.
  4. Chose the store carefully. It should be a store that you will go into again and again. You should know the store well and be prepared to cancel the trip if it doesn’t go well; in other words always know your exit plan. Your exit plan will be something that will be utilized each time you leave the house whether you go to the local store or on a vacation to a far away and new place.

Three Levels of Executing Your Plan

Level 1: For the beginner, lowest functioning child

Level 2: For the more experienced, more verbal child

Level 3: For the highest level, most verbal child

Execution Plan Level 1

For the youngest autistic child and/or the lowest functioning autistic child the trip and the expectations should be short and sweet to avoid a negative experience.

  1. Keep the shopping list to a maximum of three very familiar items that your child normally would ask for or really want (i.e. candy, chips, cookies).
  2. Do NOT do any other shopping while in the store.
  3. Choose a quiet time to go to the store when the store is least busy; perhaps short or no lines.
    Waiting on a line in a store can be challenging and can ruin the entire experience. After all no one likes to wait on line. For an autistic child with sensory issues a loud place, with bright lights and noises– a place like a supermarket– can be a very difficult experience.
  4. Get in and out of the store as fast as possible. If needed fully facilitate the shopping; use hand over hand if needed to get the items into the cart and at the checkout and then quickly out of the store.
  5. Be sure to praise your child at each step of the process; Praise your child starting with entering the store then getting the carriage and putting items into the cart, and loading them onto the checkout counter/conveyor belt etc–keep the positive praise going.
  6. At the end when you are at the car, give your child a reward. The reward is something that is appropriate for your child that would be considered a treat and would show your child that they just did a wonderful thing.

Plan on doing this activity 3 times a week for about a month and monitor how it is going.

If 3 items are too much or too little adjust the number of items to ensure success.

If the store isn’t working out (if it’s too busy all the time for example) find another store. Be sure to find one that you will use on a normal shopping trip since your ultimate goal is to expand the time in the store and the shopping list and have your child shop with you for groceries for the household.

If this is a total disaster, your child has a meltdown or it’s just not working, you can try changing the type of store.

Consider a smaller store; it doesn’t have to be a grocery store. Try any store that you can go into and have a small list of things to buy. It’s important to have a goal and stick to it otherwise your child will be without a mission and it could become confusing and disorienting. Having a goal and remaining consistent will allow you to repeat the experience multiple times. This is important in order to progress and move to a higher level.

Execution Plan Level 2

For the higher functioning or more verbal child some of the pointers in plan level 1 aren’t appropriate. Once again this is a tailor made plan for the level of your child’s language, sensory tolerance, and exposure to outside activities.

  1. Make the list. Let your child make the list with you; try to keep it simple but let your child be excited about what they are buying. Remember you will be rewarding your child so be sure there are fun items on the list that could also act as a reward.
  2. Choose the store wisely. Once again, while your child might be higher functioning or older and more experienced, a store can still be a daunting experience. Picking a quiet time can’t hurt anyone and I would suggest this in order to ensure a successful trip overall.
  3. Let your child lead in the store. This will raise self esteem in an environment that would otherwise be uncomfortable.
  4. Get in and out quickly. Don’t do other shopping and be sure to reward with verbal praise during the store experience and an actual reward at the end.

Continue doing this at least 3 times a week; add in your own shopping list as you see fit and be sure to move slowly once again to ensure a positive experience.

The name of the game always is error free success; you want to create situations that allow success with the least amount of correction. Positive reinforcement is the key to any successful activity with an autistic child. You should hear us in the super market; people around us think we are crazy — the things we praise our son for would, for anyone else, be ridiculous! But it works and he shops in stores all the time and enjoys it.

Execution Plan Level 3

Only you can determine a level that works for your child. In fact you might find that your child starts at level 1 but quickly moves to a higher level because of a successful trip or progress that your child is making overall.

This level is for the highest functioning autistic children. It would absolutely include those children with strong communication skills both verbal and non verbal.

At this level you might be wondering why this exercise is necessary.

First of all going to the supermarket or any store for that matter is a practical exercise in life. Everyone should learn how to maneuver their way through a store of any kind in order to expand their level of independence. Also, stores in general present many sensory obstacles.

Sensory Obstacles are the key components and challenges for every trip you will take, whether to the store or to Disney! They are everywhere and warrant a brief discussion.

Every autistic child has sensory issues, the range is wide, varied and sometimes unpredictable. For example, at one time my son hated the vacuum cleaner, but never was effected by loud music playing. The music was much louder but for some reason the pitch or feel, or sound overall of the vacuum cleaner was extremely painful for him.

Today he doesn’t like the vacuum cleaner, but he doesn’t run out of the room or scream. He does tend to plug his ears or disconnect himself from it by focusing on something else (i.e. if he is watching a video or drawing he becomes even more involved).

All autistic children benefit from working with the sensory issues that affect them. We have seen that the more exposure the less sensitive they may become. Making small changes are important for you to see the benefits.

At Level 3 you would do similar activities as Level 1 and 2 but you would have a longer list of items; your child might even write the items for you. Also you are not limited to just the supermarket you may go any store that you feel might present a challenge for your child.

Procedurally you would:

  1. Select the store.
  2. Make the shopping list.
  3. Have your more advanced child select the items in the store and pay at check out (if able to.)

During this activity it is important to note any behavioral changes that might occur so that you can be prepared in an unfamiliar but busy environment (i.e. airport!) that a trip could introduce.

Since your child is verbal listen to your child carefully and pin point potential problems for a trip.

For example if your child is expressing any discontent during the trip, take note of it and remember it when planning a trip and try to avoid, as best you can,reintroducing something that could trigger that uncomfortable or bad feeling in your child–yes this is challenging but you and only you can tell when your child is stressed.

Important Considerations for All Levels

Be sure to let the store clerks know that your child is autistic (be prepared for a confused look as there are still a number of people who won’t know what you are talking about!). An informed person will be supportive.

At the checkout allow your child to pay for the groceries with cash or swipe your credit/debit card–our son loves doing this; he feels a sense of closure and accomplishment.

If your child is learning about money and or math in school, this is also an opportunity to work that activity into the store outing.

If your list is small and you want to use cash this can be an opportunity for your child to find the correct bills and change. Or you could simply ask your child to read the total grocery amount to see how your child is doing with numbers, large and small.

All of this depends on your child’s abilities and if these activities are in keeping with their school program.

Remember, constant use and reinforcement of a limited amount of educational goals both at school and home will allow your child to generalize and master their goals.


Once you feel comfortable with the trip strategy we have outlined, you are ready to start planning a vacation.

Be sure that you have experimented with several types of environments from supermarkets to department stores.

Knowing how your child’s reactions in the various environments will be useful when you venture outside your comfort zone during a vacation. You are now ready for Trip Planning.