Let me give an evolution of my shopping trips with Gray to the grocery store. When Gray was younger, he was an excellent grocery store companion. It was one of the few places where we could really bond and enjoy each other. With him sitting in the grocery cart, we could face each other as I pushed around the store. We had a great time making faces at each other, and I would sing songs to him while he grinned and threw his arms around my neck. We both enjoyed going to stores with lots of samples and we could make a whole lunch out of moving through the aisles. Around the time that Gray turned 4, I noticed that he started reaching for items in the store that had brand logos or appearances like items that we kept in our house. I distinctly remember buying Ritz crackers on one grocery trip because I was so thrilled that Gray recognized the box and pointed to them. Gray was equally thrilled that I recognized his request and we both left the store happily stuffing Ritz Crackers in our mouths. By the time he turned 5, Gray began lunging for the items that he recognized instead of just pointing to them. Which brings us up to the last year or so…
Over the last year, Gray has become so excited about going to the grocery store that it now has turned from a pleasant experience together to an unpleasant one. Just pulling into the parking lot is enough to start him squealing and jumping in his car seat. If I even dare to leave him in the car with Barry to dash inside by myself and grab something, I will most certainly return to find Gray having a meltdown in the car over the missed chance to go shopping. One of the last big shopping trips happened the week before I left for my Portland training.
Gray was having a manic day and generally terrorizing everyone at the house. Because I needed leave the house well-stocked before my trip, I valiantly volunteered to take Gray with me to the store and get him out of everyone’s hair for a while. As we pushed up and down the aisles and stopped to gather groceries or wait for deli meat to be sliced, Gray jumped inside the cart with such force that it actually made the cart jump with him. People stared. I made jokes like, “The smoked ham really is phenomenal here!” When I paused on the coffee aisle, Gray lifted a bin lid and scooped up a handful of coffee beans that he scattered across the floor. The best part was when a representative from a wine company stopped us to offer me a sample of their new white wine. I listened as she told me all about how it was a perfect wine for just sitting on the patio and sipping in the afternoon. I paused for a moment to envision a life where I just sat on the patio with a bottle of wine each afternoon. I smiled at Gray. He smiled back. And then he slapped me full-force across the face and laughed like a lunatic. The woman from the wine company was shocked. She just blinked at me for a moment and then she said, “Oh, Honey. You better take two bottles.”
That was about the time I decided that it was time to end our shopping trip. The lines were long at the registers. I held my breath and tried to decide if I should just abandon my cart and make a run for the car. A lady in front of us turned around and smiled. She said that I have a beautiful son. Before I could thank her, Gray whipped off his shoe and threw it at her. More crazy laughter. More jokes and apologies from me.
When Kati and I discussed places in the community where we had difficulties, I told her all about my last trip to the store. She did not seem too surprised. Apparently, this is a common problem for kids with autism. Kati informed me that Gray would no longer be riding in grocery carts at the store. Now, with Hope, he could walk with us like a big boy instead of “contained” and “managed” in a grocery cart. I must admit, this has been one outing that I have avoided. Of all of the brave places that I have ventured with Gray and Hope, the grocery store causes me the most angst. I guess the reason behind that is because the grocery store is a place where both Gray and I have strong needs and they rarely coincide. I do not go to the grocery store to just kill time or entertain myself. When I am in the grocery store, I am on a mission to gather up all of the supplies my family needs in the shortest time possible. Gray, on the other hand is furiously trying to gather all of his favorite snacks and eat them, or he is getting himself so whipped up that he is just looking for the next “exciting” event he can create. So…for all of the preceding reasons, I have dropped that outing from my priority list and chosen to do my shopping when Gray is otherwise occupied.
But, then, last Saturday, Zoe made a good case for a fresh batch of DVD movies. Lena was going to a birthday party for 90 minutes and I did not really have a good plan for entertaining Zoe and Gray. I decided that a little training trip Target would effectively kill 2 birds with one stone. Because it was an unplanned trip, I was able to stifle my urge to be productive. I informed Zoe that we needed to stay focused on the task at hand: get the movies and do not let Gray ride in a cart. She was ready to assist. As we walked through the parking lot, I told Gray that we would be walking in the store. I told him that we would not be getting a grocery cart. When we walked in the store, Gray tried to make a beeline for the stacked up grocery carts. Hope held steady and Zoe took Gray’s left hand to guide him away. After we cleared the front entrance, Gray had an easier time walking with us. Then, we passed our first person who was pushing a cart. He immediately latched onto the side of that cart and started to throw a leg over. I decided to keep my attention focused on Gray and I gave a little tug on his belt. I told him that we were not using the cart and he needed to get his handle (on Hope’s pack). He immediately climbed down and took his handle like he was hypnotized and had no control over his actions once I said that magic “handle” word. This same scenario happened a few more times while we crossed the store to get to the movie section. I ignored the startled looks of the cart owners who were so confused by a boy and his dog commandeering their cart. I considered their bewilderment a necessary casualty as I held fast to Gray’s behavioral plan.
Thankfully, there was only one aisle of movies for families. As Zoe browsed, Gray and Hope sat on the floor. When it was time to take our purchases to the checkout line, I gave Gray a DVD to carry so that his left hand would not be available to grab people or their carts. Twenty minutes after entering the store, we were leaving with all goals accomplished. I felt like we were making baby steps in our shopping skills and Zoe was thrilled to have some fresh movies to watch. I am so grateful to Hope for the calm alternative that she provides Gray. There is no running in the store. There is no jumping in a cart. There is no grabbing items off of shelves. With the simple phrase, “Get your handle,” Gray has no choice but to calm himself and walk with me.