Uhm, this is from the archives and I forgot to bring it back. Given how often I talk about spoons (including the one I’m writing for today, I realized, hey, I can’t link to what’s never been brought back and posted….), I thought it’s a good time to bring this one back. Another post is forthcoming!
Shopping can be either a relief to or a heavy burden to Autistic shoppers. On the one hand, there are the crowds and with them noise, distractions, and the constant possibility that one might have to actually engage with strangers and/or people one knows, but can’t quite place in this context. On the other hand, a good store can be neat and orderly, with wide aisles and fantastic employees who can really save you time and money. Some autistics love looking at the neat stacks of fruit, for example. As such, some Autistics find pleasure in shopping while others consider it akin to entering a warzone.
Hopefully this post will help you to understand just a little bit about why it can be hard to shop with us!
What Do Spoons Have To Do With It?
Whether we love or loathe shopping, we do have to check our spoon drawers before venturing out. Spoon Theory, if you’ve never heard of it before, is a brilliant theory created by Christine Miserandino trying to explain the reduction in energy available to her on a given day due to her Lupus. It has since been expanded to include all Disabled people or those with chronic illness. Each person has a drawer full of spoons on a given day. Each day, the spoon drawer looks a little different, and each spoon is assigned to a particular task.
So, let’s take Autism as an example, the spoon drawer would often be separated into social interaction spoons, language spoons, physical activity spoons, sensory spoons, or executive function spoons. Some days when we wake up, we have a TON of energy and get a fair number of physical activity spoons, but other days, we simply don’t have them. A great blog post that talks about spoon theory and Autism comes from Cynthia Kim.
So, here’s how spoon theory works when the whole family is Autistic. One day my family and I went to the zoo. My husband was thrilled because he often doesn’t have a lot of physical activity spoons and today he was flush with them. I seemed to be doing okay with the physical spoons, too. My son, on the other hand, had maybe two of them and they were expended long before we made it to his favorite animals, the giraffes. We had to turn back. He ended up lying down on the ground while a class of elementary school children stared at him, and we waited until he got it together enough to get to a bench so that daddy could head for the car to drive it to the entrance because our son was definitely not going to make it through the parking lot.
What does this have to do with shopping?
Let’s Get Real about Shopping Expectations
Shopping, like a zoo trip, is often a family bonding activity. Everyone goes together to see what kinds of items are available and what’s on sale and so on. This is when parents teach their kids the value of thrift, delayed gratification, and math skills. This is when children learn to harass their parents just enough to get the sugary snacks the want, but not so much that those snacks get left behind.
But that’s not how it works for us.
One of the problems with spoons is that the amount of spoons available to one on a given day varies and you are only in charge of your own spoons, so since my husband, my son, and I all have myriad spoon options and none of us can see each other’s drawers to plan ahead. Spoons are personal.
Add to that that shopping takes a lot of spoons. There’s physical activity in the walking around part, social activity because of the people, sensory issues because of the sights, sounds, and smells (and again, all the people) and that obnoxious fluorescent lighting. Oh, and people expect you to talk! There go some language spoons! And above it all, there’s the executive function nightmare of remembering, even if you have a list, why you’re there and what you need to be doing because ooh, look at that great price on walnuts! As such, if we’re going to most stores, we have to plan the trip early in the day on a day when we have enough in the spoon drawer to actually complete the activity. We’re about useless for anything else after that and each of us will go to our respective offices, alone, and avoid each other for the rest of the day.
Sounds fun, right?
Amazon and Other Havens for the Executively Dysfunctioned
The good news is, we live in modern America and we have options. A significant one we use (most often) is just sending one of us to the store. This is usually my husband since he focuses better on gathering what we need and getting out. I think it’s because his social anxiety is worse than mine, so he is less likely to look for bargains. On rare occasions, my husband and I will include a trip to the grocery store after having dinner out on “date night,” but our son rarely goes shopping anymore, unless it’s on a targeted mission, such as picking up a new video game or going to the Lego store.
In addition to the idea of one hunter-gatherer, there is the glory of Amazon. My son has learned the patience that comes from being a child in the era of “release-date delivery” and “two-day shipping.” He can delay gratification until Amazon or Best Buy can ship what he wants to our home.
When we lived in the Twin Cities, I was a heavy user of Coborn’s, a grocery store that delivered. I then only had to do executive function one day, in my house, at my computer, without having to waste physical, social, or sensory spoons. The next day, I could easily make small talk with the delivery driver who 1) I knew was coming (they even gave me a delivery window!) and 2) almost always was the same guy so that my language and social spoon leakage was kept to a minimal. The Twin Cities alternative to Coborn’s was SuperTarget, where I could buy everything from groceries to toys on a single trip and get it over with. This is critical because going to multiple stores is almost never in the spoon drawer.
In South-Central Wisconsin, however, where we live now, there are no grocery stores that deliver. We do, however, boast Woodman’s, a chain that, while small in numbers, boasts (wait for it) the largest square-footage grocery stores of the entire country. If you need it, they have it. Seriously. We can buy our odd brand of cat litter there, salt for the driveway or water softener, an ice scraper as well as our groceries. And not only do they have it, their prices often beat Wal-mart (a store we NEVER go into because the aisles are too tight and messy and the cashiers seem to display a sense of learned helplessness neither my husband nor I can tolerate; if we’re wasting spoons on you, you’d better be good at what you do…end rant). Woodman’s cashiers are not only super-competent, the baggers know how to bag and they do this for you. They are totally worth the spoon loss because we rarely have to go anywhere else.
The reason I gush about Woodman’s, though, is it’s an example of a place which, while absolutely too huge to even consider going into without mental preparation, even for a neurotypical, has a risk-reward value that’s so high we will gladly shed spoons for it.
But it’s dangerous to try to even consider popping in and out of Woodman’s. You need preparation. For us, it’s along the lines of going on a weekend vacation for neurotypicals.
Shopping for Autistics: It’s A Multi-Step Process
Step 1: The Planning Phase: We work on the list over several days. On a good day, when I’m in the kitchen, where our Amazon Alexa sits (we were early adopters; the device will build your shopping list or play music for you; it’s a great sensory calmer as well as an executive function-assistant), I’ll notice we’re nearly out of something and say, “Alexa, add potatoes to shopping list.” This means I don’t have to remember to write it down later; it goes right to the list. In bed the night before the trip, my husband and I fine-tune the list Alexa made us. Woodman’s has an app now where you can see most prices and line up the shopping trip so I can convert my Alexa list to a Woodman’s list relatively easily. If Woodman’s ever managed to get that app voice-activated, we’d be in heaven.
Step 2: The Gathering Phase: Once the list is finalized, I send my husband the next weekday morning before 10. It has to be him. I recently came back with no list (we hadn’t made it yet and I can’t both write a list and shop on the same day) and $130 even worth of…weird stuff.
Step 3: Repeat? or Take-Out: Some weeks we make it a whole week without having to go back, but other weeks we have to go back or just do drive-thrus and delivery. When I’m particularly busy, it’s hard for me to plan out a list and what well eat and when, so we have to have food brought to us. We can all make menu decisions that cover ONE day far easier than ideas covering several days, but it’s stressful. This is why I spent most of my life eating cereal for breakfast: you don’t have to think about it. Lunch and dinner are harder.
Sample Neurotypical Method: My sister goes to the more-expensive, but closer to her, Pic’n’Save after work more than once a week. My husband and I do not understand how she can accomplish this task after a full day especially since they are a much smaller store so you’re less spread out with higher prices and don’t boast super baggers. We lose four or five spoons upon hitting the door at that place. If she doesn’t have food, she stops on her way home from work and gets whatever she needs without getting lost and confused. This boggles the mind.
Before I leave my commerce discussion, I ought to mention the blessing that is online shopping. We order our soaps from an order of Russian Orthodox Monks, for example, and I order my dresses from a group of women in New York State. We are also heavy users of Amazon for odd things my parents never comprehend. Like an extension cord. We need another? Okay, order it now, wait two days, voila! But given the high prices of the same things at Ace Hardware, our closest hardware store downtown, we justify it as a price savings and note that I do work many jobs at odd hours at home, suggesting how busy we are. In reality, it’s all about the spoons. If we save spoons on shopping, that means we have other things we can do that we actually enjoy.
Like go to used bookstores or the Lego Store.
Ooh, brief update. Woodman’s now lets us (if we pay extra, the amount extra depends on factors I don’t understand since the prices are higher for some things, but not all things, that are shopped for “pick up” vs. self-shopping) make them do the shop through the store. I wish they’d offer a discount for those of us who have a hard time with the store, like more than most people. A trip to Woodman’s takes out a day’s worth of spoons, especially on busy days. Also Pic’n’Save is gone now so my sister has to plan even more than before. Anyway, things have gotten better, but only if we have the extra cash to spend for convenience which because I work for the Church and my husband works for an Autism-friendly employer at home so we self-pay for insurance…we rarely do. But it’s there, and we’ll sometimes do that if we can.