Supermarkets: The Final Frontier

This was inspired by a post on Buzzfeed about parenting.

So, most grocery stores are my own personal hell.

  • They’re bright, firstly. Fluorescent lights are most common in these stores, and many autists can actually see the 60-cycle electricity in them, so it hurts like the beginning of a migraine. Sometimes I’ve worn sunglasses into the market, but then I get weird looks, and it bothers me more than I’d like to admit.
  • They’re often loud. The low hum of a crowd doesn’t bother me – I actually find it rather soothing – but for every crowd just minding its business, there’s the odd woman with a voice like a brick shattering on pavement, or a shrieking toddler that hits exactly the decibel level that makes me start to quiver.
  • It doesn’t happen as often, but I’ve encountered a few where the smells are overpowering. Not even necessarily bad, just strong. I used to walk into my old supermarket right by the bakery, and the baking bread, coupled with the olive bar, coupled with the perfumes on various people, it’s enough to get me holding my breath and walking fast. The smell of olives is disgusting to me, but the smell of baking bread is wonderful. It creates a weird stew where my brain’s net output usually winds up as ABORT ABORT ABORT.
  • All of this can lead to me acting like a douche at times – it’s not an excuse, but it is an explanation. If you’re s-l-o-w-l-y reaching for every item and s-l-o-w-l-y taking the bags off the rack, I am going to act irritated, because I want to get out of here as fast as I can so I don’t melt down.

Obviously, not everyone – not even every autistic – has the exact same problems that I do. But if you see someone who clearly looks ill at ease, they’re not some freak, they might be on the spectrum.

However, the point of all this is – it’s my choice to go into these places. I could get all my stuff from smaller markets (especially in the big city where I live now), but I go into the big box stores for certain items, and also because it’s a matter of personal pride. Sensory overload will not rule me.

The vegetable aisle of a supermarket, with green bins holding vegetables which include eggplants, tomatoes, cucumbers and other unidentified vegetables.

The vegetable aisle of a supermarket, with green bins holding vegetables which include eggplants, tomatoes, cucumbers and other unidentified vegetables.

It is not okay to make an autistic who is younger, who may not have that personal choice, go into a place that causes them pain. It’s just not. Some mothers in the comments of that Buzzfeed story spoke blithely about taking their very small autistic children into the grocery store so they can “learn to adapt” and “conduct themselves appropriately.” This is an extremely upsetting thing to hear from people who are supposed to know better. It smacks of the need to “make us normal” instead of trying to understand us.

We do not”adapt” to sensory overload. We just don’t.

Believing that we do assumes that we have control over what overloads us. We don’t. And you should be ashamed of yourself for thinking that we do. Yes, ashamed.

The only thing you are doing, by taking a small autistic child into such an environment, is creating an intense fear and/or hatred for that environment. It won’t magically become “the grocery store” if you throw them into it enough. It will still be “that place that hurts my head and my ears.” They will learn to dread it, to fear it – instead of associating it with people and happy social interactions, they will associate it with pain. If you throw a kid into the deep end of the pool at age six, they won’t magically learn to swim. They’ll be terrified of it until they’re older.

The answer, though, is not to keep your autistic child at home – or, for that matter, if you’re an autistic adult, to stay at home yourself. The answer is to think like us. Think like a square peg. Not a round hole. Presume competence.

If your child is tiny, maybe it is best to leave them home. Or go at off hours, as my parents often did with me. But if they can communicate (and no, I don’t just mean by speaking), try to get them to wear a hat. Earmuffs. Sunglasses. It’s a lot more understandable when children wear things that seem incongruous. Make it fun, even – one family I know has a special Quiet Headband for their little girl in the grocery store and movie theaters and other loud places, and the parents let her choose the color, decorating the earmuffs and basically making her feel like Wonder Woman.

We do in fact listen to reason a lot of the time. Sure, sometimes we don’t, and then the tough choices have to be made. I never intended to say that parenting any kid, even a NT kid, is easy – but these mothers are hurting their children. Any insistence on “normalcy” usually hurts us. We’re not “normal”, and we should be accepted for that, instead of made to fit the mold. We can learn, and we can grow at our own pace – but we can’t “adapt” how you want us to. We can’t control that bright fluorescent lights hurt our eyes. We can’t control that the sales clerk in the next aisle has a voice like a chainsaw in our heads. Stop thinking we can.

We can’t control how we feel, only how we act, and at certain ages, we can’t even control that. Trying to teach us to “adapt” only helps us cling to the familiar. Because it’s all we have.

So if you see me in a grocery store anywhere near you, please accept that I’m doing the very best I can. And stay out of my way.



  1. i agree so very much! my wife and i are both autistic, and grocery stores can be absolutely overwhelming sometimes. we end up going really late at night, so we don’t have to deal with all the people, but there are still overwhelming things–like when you go to the cold stuffs section? like lunchmeat and stuff? and there’s that…humming noise it makes over there? i’m not really sure what it is/how to describe it, but it’s made both of us practically have a meltdown sometimes, my wife can’t be over there there for more than a few minutes, she ends up putting her hands over her ears and has to get away.

  2. WHY HAVEN’T I FOUND YOUR BLOG BEFORE?! This is brilliant. Thank you so much for writing this, it perfectly describes my issues with supermarkets – and with people trying to “help” us cope with things, for that matter.

  3. Grocery stores an hour before they close are amazing. I usually don’t have the energy to make myself go late weeknights, unfortunately, but the times that I have, they have been AMAZING and quiet and empty!

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