Got Autism? Need food? Here’s how you can teach your child to go to the grocery store. 

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autism, TAGteach, ABA, positive reinforcement

Check out this list of stressors for a kid with autism:

  • Bright lights pulsating overhead.
  • Tinny music.
  • People, kids, and carts milling around.
  • Water sprayers misting the vegetables.
  • And my pet peeve: the coupon dispensers with their blinking red lights waving coupons at eye level.

Think this is stressing for a kid with autism?  Think this is a challenging environment for an autism parent to manage while also trying to shop for food?

Well, you’re right. The prospect of taking a kid with autism through the grocery store can bring people to tears or to their knees. It doesn’t have to be that way.

Food is Health, Family History and Culture

Every family needs to go to the grocery store, and it should be happy experience. The grocery store is an important learning environment!  Families talk about healthy foods, or explain what Grandma needs to make her famous holiday recipe. Family lore and culture is passed on via food. All the kids in the family deserve this experience, including kids with autism.

Make absolutely, positively sure you’ve mastered the pre-requisites!

TAGteach is an easy and effective way to teach a child with autism the skills he needs to have a good time at the grocery store with his family. But please don’t start with this project first! Before teaching grocery store skills, make sure your child has mastered all the Safe Walking and Safe Car Trip tag points. With these skills under his belt, it will be a simple matter of time and practice to build up his grocery store skills. To review, make sure your child has mastered these previously-taught tag points.

  1. Quiet Mouth
  2. Appropriate Vocalization
  3. Walk Beside Me
  4. Stand/Wait
  5. Hands/Feet Still (in car)

When these skills are mastered, the next step is to transfer them to a new setting: the grocery store.

Talk to the Grocery Store Manager

Since appropriate grocery store behavior has to be specifically taught, my first step was to talk to the manager at the local store. I explained that I was going to teach my child with autism how to behave in the store, and asked for their understanding. They were wonderfully supportive, friendly and helpful.

Multiple, short trips to start

It is better to start out by making multiple short trips to purchase a few items at a time. It may even be better for some families to start out by not buying any food at all, but simply taking the child into the store, walking up and down one aisle and leaving. This depends on the child and his tolerance level.

Use your TAGteach skills to tag and reinforce the Safe Walking tag points as he walks down that one aisle with you, and have a nice treat ready when he leaves the store. Focus on short trips and set them up to be successful experiences for your child. As the child becomes more comfortable, extend the time in the store to walking down two aisles, or buy a few items.

Write up a shopping list that matches store lay-out

It is helpful to plan your (few) purchases in advance. Write up the list in the order that that you walk through the store. Backtracking in the grocery store can be tough for a kid with autism, so work on that skill later.

The grocery store tag point: Hands on Cart!

The next tag point to teach is Hands on Cart. Show your child how to put both hands on the cart, then tag and reinforce for every instance of Hands on Cart. Since he has all his good Safe Walking Skills, you can now focus on tagging and reinforcing the tag point Hands On Cart.

As you start walking and pushing the cart, tag intensively for Hands on Cart. You may see him take his hands off the cart. If this happens, just wait and when one or both hands is on the cart, tag and reinforce. Tag and reinforce the Hands on Cart behavior intensively. This is a new behavior, and when you are building a new behavior you must reinforce it every time it occurs. If he holds his hands on the cart for a while, tag throughout that time. When you and he stop to put something in the car, tag and reinforce the Stand/Wait behavior. In the beginning you will probably push the cart with your child, but eventually he can do the pushing himself. If your child is still small enough to sit in the cart, teach Hands on Cart from that position. It is a useful skill to have in place for later.

You should not have to worry about your child bolting, because he should have good Walk Beside Me and Stand/Wait behavior already mastered! As you go through the store, continue tagging and reinforcing all instances of Walk Beside Me, Hands on Cart and Stand/Wait behavior. With my son, I reinforced all these good behaviors. If he had Quiet Mouth throughout the trip, he got to pick out a special treat in his favorite aisle. It’s easy to reward a kid in the grocery store! Save his favorite aisle for last and let him show you the way. He’ll be eager to get there.

After more practice, we built these short trips into the normal routine that most parents have. We talk about the food items, count out the apples and oranges as we put them in the bag, and so forth.

Our family enjoys trips to the grocery store. We go often. We can take as much time as we need. We can go to several stores in a row, driving from one to another, with no problems. My son enjoys these expeditions and is a good helper. He puts items in the cart, loads them onto the belt at the check-out, carries bags to the car, and carries bags from the car to the house.

I taught him the Hands On Cart skill, but he figured out the bag carrying all by himself. One day we came home from the store and he independently ran back to the car, pulled the grocery bags out of the trunk, shut the trunk of the car and carried everything into the house. Wonderful!

Other Types of Stores

In some stores you use a basket to go shopping. In that case, the tag point is Hands on Basket. I started out by having my son hold one handle of the basket while I held the other. Now he holds the basket by himself. In stores where you do not use a cart or basket to shop, focus intensively on the Walk Beside Me tag point described earlier. I started with short trips and tagged and reinforced the Walk Beside Me tag point until I was confident that he would stay with me and not bolt down those long, tempting aisles.


Parents can teach their children with autism to enjoy trips to the grocery store. The most important skills to teach first are the Safe Walking and Safe Car trip skills.

This is so important that I will repeat it. Teach your child with autism the Safe Walking and Safe Car trip skills first.

Then transfer the Safe Walking skills to a new setting; the grocery store. Do this with multiple short trips and stay within your child’s tolerance level. When he can comfortably keep his hands on the cart for longer periods, stop to pick up food items, and wait at the checkout, make the trips longer. Your family can look forward to pleasant trips to the grocery store and eventually to other stores. With time, practice, and TAGteach, any parent can teach these skills.

What is TAGteach?

TAGteach stands for Teaching with Acoustical Guidance. TAGteach is a teaching and communication method based on the scientific principles of Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA).

TAGteach enables extremely precise positive reinforcement of behavior by using an acoustical signal to “mark” the behavior – at the precise moment the child performs the behavior! The acoustical signal is a short, sharp sound made by a handheld device (the “tagger”). When the child performs the correct action, the parent/instructor immediately presses the button on the tagger and hands over a treat (candy, treat, token, praise, social recognition, or money) as a reinforcer.

With TAGteach, it is easy to reinforce behaviors precisely and quickly. The immediate, accurate feedback and positive reinforcement result in the child performing the correct action more often, and for longer periods of time. With immediate feedback and learning tasks broken down into small steps, children can learn many new skills with TAGteach — at their own pace.

For more information see the TAGteach International website. autism, tagteach, ABA, positive reinforcement

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Adapted from Chapter Four of Chaos to Calm: Discovering Solutions to the Everyday Problems of Living with Autism. Copy 2013 by Martha Gabler.

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Martha Gabler

Autism parent. Director, Kids' Learning Workshop LLC. Author of Chaos to Calm: Discovering Solutions to the Everyday Problems of Living with Autism.

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