… or,as it’s more commonly known as, a trip to the supermarket.
I have often referenced the difficulties of facing up to a trip through the aisles in past posts and articles but, until now, I haven’t put down in words what makes this so challenging, not just for me, but for many autistic people.
It’s one of the hardest areas to self advocate for because most people dislike grocery shopping and when you say you can’t cope with it they tend to reference their own dislike and think you’re being dramatic and it can’t possibly be as bad as you say. ‘I hate it too,’ they think, ‘but I manage it, why don’t you just make a list?’
I get it – it’s not always easy to see things from an autistic point of view and the gaslighting is not intentional, but to compare a neurotypical experience with the difficulties faced by the neurodivergent community is fairly callous. And no, Susan, making a list doesn’t help – but more on that later
First of all there is the sheer sensory overload to deal with. Supermarkets aren’t sympathetic places to those of us whose sensory systems are wired towards hypersensitivity.
The laundry aisle is a nightmarish assault on my sense of smell and the scents drift out way past the actual physical placement of these products. And don’t get me started on the fresh mussels!
The clashing of the trollies as they get shoved back into line and the rattling and clanging as people push through the entry barriers. The constant beeping of the scanners at the checkout and the low hum of conversation all add up, layer upon layer of sound, into a confusing and physically painful experience.
The lighting is horrendous. It’s too bright and for some unknown reason my local supermarket decided it would be a great idea to polish their concrete floors, so now the light bounces up from underneath as well! Some of the coolers have very bright fluorescent lighting that actually hurts my eyes to look at.
By the time I reach the checkout I am often feeling lightheaded and disoriented just from the effects of the lights alone.
Wearing dark glasses and ear defenders helps but what they can’t do is cut down on the visual clutter and they cannot help with my visual processing difficulties.
There is just too much happening in my visual field. The shelves are full of so many differently coloured packages and there are too many people all moving around in my line of vision.
This is a phenomenon I also experience when driving somewhere unfamiliar. It’s a stressful experience because my brain cannot separate the different things I am seeing into meaningful information.
In the days before online shopping I coped by partially shutting down my brain. Dissociating to a certain extent, I guess. So I was physically present but not quite there. The sensory overload still affected me and I would often still be shaking and dizzy by the time I got to the checkout, but I wasn’t totally overwhelmed.
Which brings me to the subject of lists – the holy grail of executive functioning, apparently. I’ve lost count of the times this has been offered to me as a way to manage all variations of my autistic struggles; a universal panacea for all that troubles me.
Firstly, the ADHD part of my brain can’t work with lists and believe me I’ve tried. For many years I would take to heart this particular piece of advice from well meaning people only to fail miserably and believe myself to be completely defective as a human being – after all you ‘just’ make a list, how hard can it be?
Secondly, if I did manage to make a list and attempt to follow it, it would necessitate coming out of my shutdown zone and experiencing the full force of the sensory overwhelm in order to follow it.
I can follow a list if it is in strict order. What I mean by that is, if the list reads butter, milk, eggs and I encounter those items in that order as I go around the supermarket the list will work for me. But, if the butter is first on the list but it’s the last thing I will encounter as I negotiate my way around the aisles, I’m lost. My mind can’t retain the fact I need the butter because I’ve moved down the list. The only way the list could work, is for me to go searching for every single item as they appear on the list, trekking backwards and forwards through the shop until I have discovered every item. Exhausting!
So a list is out. What I have done in the past is memorise where items are in the supermarket and when I reach them it jogs my memory to put them in my trolley. That kind of works providing I have a clear knowledge of what’s needed at home. This is why I often have 30 tins of baked beans but no toilet paper. It might work better if I wasn’t shut down and was able to think clearly about the actual gaps in the pantry but honestly, it really has been the best solution I could come up with at the time.
Having a support person, usually my husband, is tremendously helpful. He is able to compare prices, seek out the specials and make intentional choices about items that aren’t urgently needed but could come in handy and all I have to do is zone out and push the trolley.
These days supermarkets offer a sensory hour where lighting and sound is reduced to make it more comfortable for those with sensory issues – but it’s only an hour once a week.
The advent of on line shopping revolutionised my life. I never go now, except for the odd occasion where I’m feeling strong enough and only for one or two things, so I can zip in and out in no time. Mostly, I prefer to pay a bit extra and go to our local dairy or service station which are kinder on my senses. I’m pleased to say my days of travelling to hell and back are over and the extent to which I feel relieved by this tells me how much of an effort it was to do the weekly shopping in the past.