Autistic Experience Series: The Grocery Store

By Alyssa Salter
Bened Life Neurodiversity & Disability Specialist

There is a place that most people have to visit. This place is loud and filled with people. This place beeps and squeaks. This place has challenges for all. That’s right; I’m talking about the grocery store.

We are talking about your milk, toilet paper, and fresh produce store. For some, it is a regular task that they must perform and takes up no extra space or energy in their lives. Inconvenient? Perhaps. But an aversive experience? Unlikely.

That is where me and my sensory sensitive friends enter the chat…with hearing protection. 

Why I Avoid the Grocery Store

For me, grocery shopping is an Olympic-sized task. When I enter a grocery store, you’re not seeing the hours of time I spent avoiding and preparing to go to the grocery store. I have sensory sensitivities, which make the music and soundscape of a grocery store the ideal storm for a migraine or meltdown. 

Currently, it is estimated that 5% to 16% of the general US population have symptoms of sensory sensitivities. The USA population is currently estimated at roughly 334 million people. With this data, that means that a range of 16,700,000 to 53,440,000 people in the US that have sensory sensitivity symptoms like I do. 

The grocery store is an assault on the senses for people like me. The aisles are often visually cramped with people and products. There are a lot of decisions to make -  what flavor of chips to grab, which apple is the least bruised. Is this avocado soft enough? Can I eat it today? I can't easily tune out the voices breaking in over the loudspeaker: CALLING FOR FRONT LANE BACK UP! VENTI FRAPPUCCINO? Add the smell of rotisserie chicken, body odor, and cilantro, and I’m ready to cry in the frozen section next to a box of rocket pops. 

Shopping at the supermarket can be overwhelming if you've got sensory sensitivities and/or are autistic

Here is a short and not at all comprehensive list of my usual grocery-store avoidance/preparation activities:

  • Cleaned a room like the bathroom
  • Emptied the trashes in the house
  • Took the dog down to potty
  • Cleaned the cat litter box
  • Sat in one position staring at nothing
  • Scrolled on my phone, frozen in one spot

Do any of these activities fully prepare me for a supermarket trip? No. Often, it is anxiety driven and I struggle to feel any sense of relaxation when I have to go to the store.

How I Make Grocery Shopping More Sensory-Friendly

Grocery stores are not only crowded, but their structure can make it feel more crowded to me than it is.

For instance, some people shop by going down the aisles and seeing what they need. I cannot do this otherwise it will surely end in a meltdown. Navigating carts and their people, being cramped down colorful aisles with advertising begging you to buy, and the internal nagging of what I can or cannot or should or should not grab...

Browsing for me is best done online, from the safety of my home.

Taking a fidget to the grocery store can help with sensory overwhelm if you're autistic

It isn’t all gloom and doom, as I’ve come up with a few hacks to set myself up for better success:

  • Order for pick-up
    • This is probably my number one suggestion, if possible. Some stores phased out this feature or never had it, but if it is an option then I will often choose this. 
    • Great for bigger shops.
  • Use ear protection
    • If I am going inside of a store, my ears will be protected. The conflicting sounds of registers, store music, customers talking, and miscellaneous noise will overwhelm me otherwise. 
  • Bring a fidget of some sort
    • In my bags, I have different types of fidget items that allow me to regulate my body. It could be an octopus mini-plush, a small rock I found, or any kind of fidget that brings me joy on that day. Sometimes I will bring more than one.
  • Rely on my service animal
    • I have a service animal who is trained to mitigate my meltdowns, especially when triggered by sensory overwhelm. She is also trained to create space around me and to help me stay focused and present. 
    • Not sure how to treat a service animal? Here are a couple do’s and don’ts from us!
  • Make a list
    • I write down everything I need to buy beforehand and ensure it will be easy to access when in the store. I often use my notes application on my phone and find it is something I can leave up to easily access. 

You probably are realizing that having sensory sensitivities is not easy. From fluorescent lighting that can cause migraines to the amount of sound and people make, going out and living life is difficult. There are unnecessary barriers that impede people from having accessibility and inclusion in society.

Accessibility is more than ramps, am I right?


Recommended reading:

Flying as a Disabled Person with a Service Dog

Alyssa’s Neuralli story - Can a Probiotic have Benefits for Autistic People

Understanding Probiotics for Autistic People


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