Autistic grocery shopping - A blurred view of a grocery store

The Mist, a horror novella written by Stephen King, is one of the creepiest stories I’ve read. It’s hard to imagine anything as horrifying as being stuck in a supermarket.

Grocery stores are not accessible to autistic people. Being autistic, grocery shopping has become more and more challenging for me because my sensory issues have gotten worse.

Getting food on the table shouldn’t be this hard!

Fortunately, I recently found a way to shop for groceries without entering a grocery store.

Autism and the sensory hell of grocery stores

Grocery stores are noisy as hell. And it’s the worst kind of noise. The sound of many people talking simultaneously in all directions is the worst trigger for me.

I rather listen to a chainsaw than the noise of many people talking.

Supermarkets are large, open spaces. They are built in a way that no noise gets absorbed. That’s why large hypermarkets are the worst; they are the noisiest.

I prefer small grocery stores whenever possible. There are fewer people, and they’re not as noisy because there is less space.

Another ordeal in grocery stores (and most public places) are the fluorescent lights. I always wasn’t as light-sensitive. But these days, I have zero tolerance for fluorescent lighting. If I’m exposed to them even for a couple of minutes, I get aggressive and panicky.

That’s why I wear sunglasses indoors in public places now. I no longer give a shit about what other people might think. Caring about the opinions of strangers is not worth being exhausted for days.

The small but annoying triggers

Sensory overload from noise and lights is the worst part of going to a grocery store.

There are some less painful but still annoying triggers as well. Something that really annoys me about grocery shopping is the conveyor belt.

I avoid putting my groceries on the conveyor belt until the last minute. It bothers me when the groceries start moving on the conveyor belt too soon. I’m always worried the cashier might mistake my groceries for someone else’s.

It annoys me when the conveyor belt moves and I can’t put my groceries on it fast enough. Then, there’s an awkward gap between the items on it.

I can’t control the conveyor belt, and I can’t stand it.

I know there are many things I can’t control in life. But that is all too evident in a supermarket. I have no control over the bright lights and the noise.

Dealing with the conveyor belt on top of that is like the straw that broke the camel’s back.

Autistic grocery shopping - A grocery store with bright fluorescent lights
Fluorescent lights are one of the sensory issues for autistic people visiting grocery stores.

Grocery stores are not accessible to neurodivergent people

No grocery store is accessible for people with sensory sensitivity, such as autistic individuals.

These are some of the common triggers that bother neurodivergent people in grocery stores:

  • Fluorescent lights
  • Too much stuff > Visual overload
  • People
  • Noise
  • Smells
  • Freezers hum
  • Lights buzz
  • Phones ring
  • Waiting in lines
  • The conveyor belt
  • It takes too long
  • Difficult to focus because of the distractions

These might make grocery shopping more bearable:

  • Earplugs
  • Sunglasses
  • Wearing a cap
  • Avoiding peak hours

When you make a Google search for “grocery shopping as an autistic person”, most of the results are about how to go grocery shopping with your autistic child.

But autistic adults suffer from sensory stimuli as much as autistic children, and we also need to buy food. Also, we usually have to do it ourselves; we can’t rely on our parents to shop for us anymore.

I found a sensory-friendly way to shop for groceries

In an ideal world, grocery stores would be sensory-friendly, and autistic people could shop for groceries without going mad from stress.

Unfortunately, that’s not the reality. Even with earplugs and sunglasses, grocery shopping demands so much of my energy that I hardly ever visit grocery stores anymore.

Now I use a grocery pickup service from a local supermarket. I shop online and choose a pickup time. The pickup place is a separate room in the shopping center where the supermarket is located. You can enter the room from the street. I just drive there, enter the code they send to my phone, and pick up the groceries.

You need to pay extra for the pickup service. But considering how much energy it saves me, it’s well worth it.

If I lived alone and had to use the service every week, it would get expensive with my income level. Fortunately, I live with my husband, and we split the fee. I don’t even use the service every week because my husband usually takes care of grocery shopping.

Shouldn’t society assist with expenses like this? I have a disability that makes it difficult to go to a grocery store. But the government doesn’t help neurodivergent adults. We’re invisible.

Nevertheless, I’m grateful for the pickup service. Now grocery shopping is a breeze!

Sensory-friendly shopping time, what’s that?

At least in one country, there are grocery stores accessible for autistic people during specific times.

There are now over 450 stores in Canada that offer sensory-friendly shopping hours. According to AutismBC, stores limit sensory stimuli during these hours by:

  • Reducing lighting
  • Reducing announcements and music level
  • Pausing cart collection
  • Lowering the noise
  • Providing staff support

Shopping centers around the UK have also adopted “quiet hours” for autistic shoppers.

Even if it’s just during specific hours, providing sensory-friendly shopping is progress. I sure hope there were grocery stores like that in my country. And around the world!

Sensory-friendly shopping doesn’t help only autistic people. Individuals with other health or mental health conditions would also benefit from it.

For example, a writer with post-traumatic stress disorder accidentally entered a grocery store during sensory-friendly hours and discovered it was “a dream”.

Who’s going to build the first sensory-friendly grocery store?

Grocery stores are not accessible to autistic people or others with sensory sensitivity. Grocery stores are noisy and have bright lights.

I now use a grocery pickup service from a supermarket which is much more accessible and comfortable. If you have sensory sensitivities, I recommend you look into using a grocery pickup service. It has definitely changed my life for the better.

However, grocery stores should be accessible to neurodivergent people. The fact that so few stores are currently sensory-friendly is appalling.

Canada is already showing progress with so many stores providing sensory-friendly shopping hours.

We need sensory-friendly shopping in other countries as well. Maybe someday, grocery stores could go from having sensory-friendly shopping hours to being sensory-friendly full-time. Because does anyone benefit from the noise and bright lights?

Who’s going to build the first sensory-friendly grocery store?

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