Supermarket Meltdown – 27 Problems Women on the Autistic Spectrum Have With Grocery Shopping

Could you imagine if a simple trip to the supermarket left your anxiety soaring? If the smell of fish left you feeling nauseous? Or the sound of announcements made you want to pull your hair out? This is what it is like when you try and do your weekly shopping with Asperger’s Syndrome. 

Believe it or not, supermarkets are often a huge trigger for those with autism. For the sake of this article, I will be referring to those with Asperger’s Syndrome because this is my own experience. We look like everyone else in the supermarket and you wouldn’t know but we are everywhere. According to The National Autistic Society, more than 1 in 100 people have Aspergers.

Sensory Overload

So what exactly is causing this anxiety? It’s a symptom of autism called Sensory Overload. Sensory Overload is when the brain has trouble processing sensory information and it can become ‘information overload’. Sensory information is what we hear, smell, see, taste, and feel. Our brains take in what we experience and decide what to do with it. Our brain also determines what to filter out and which sense to concentrate on.  For example, if you are having an intense conversation with your friend in a coffee shop, as a non-autistic person, you will naturally zone into the conversation and filter out the noise of the coffee machine, the smell of the coffee and people talking having their own discussions. 

What Happens When You Have A Sensory Overload?

Experiencing a sensory overload will usually resort either a loss of concentration, feeling overwhelmed, headaches, unable to process more information, high anxiety and feeling stressed. It can also cause what is known as an autistic meltdown which the National Autistic Society describes as “ ‘an intense response to overwhelming situations’. It happens when someone becomes completely overwhelmed by their current situation and temporarily loses behavioural control.  This loss of control can be expressed verbally (eg shouting, screaming, crying), physically (eg kicking, lashing out, biting) or in both ways.” 

My Own Experience of Sensory Overload:

For me, a sensory overload due to a supermarket will resort in 2 things. Sudden overstimulation of choice, I will become hyper and quite animated in my speech. This can cause impulse purchases. The other more common occurrence is shutdown. I will start to lose concentration, which will cause a headache. I will feel overwhelmed, the room will start feeling it’s attacking me with all its sensory information. I’ll want to escape and be in a quiet room alone. I will speak with pauses in my sentence because it’s hard to think and I will probably become much quieter.

I Conducted A Survey:

I surveyed over 200 autistic women who all gave me an insight into their world. I asked them what sensory issue affects them? Here was the list of results:

•   Navigating through the crowd – 213 women agreed

•   The noise of people talking – 114 women agreed

•   Florescent lights – 141 women agreed

•   Unpleasant smells from the fish counter – 113 women agreed

•   Getting distracted by something random and forgetting what they were buying – 98 women agreed

•   Beeping noise from the tills – 90 women agreed

I also invited them to tell me about other issues I hadn’t mentioned. Here was their feedback:

  • Tesco’s Scan As You Shop has the loudest handset selection beep known to man, apparently it cannot be turned down it is factory set. 
  • Music/radio/tannoy announcements
  • People getting in the way.
  • There was an alarm in the bakery at Tesco that always used to go off.
  • The smell of the cheese aisle and the cleaning product aisle.
  • Sudden cold temperature in the fridge and freezer aisles.
  • Rattling and banging of the baskets being stacked.
  • The small talk at the till when trying to concentrate on making sure I haven’t forgotten anything.
  • Babies screaming and rowdy kids running around the aisles.
  • Excruciatingly loud self-checkout till beeps. 
  • The small talk at the till sends my social anxiety through the roof.
  • The big cage on wheels that staff push around to restock the shelves is too noisy.
  • When they change the layout of the shop and where the food is moved, causes me anxiety.
  • Overwhelmed by the sheer amount of choice e.g. vegetables: organic, no-need-to-peel, individual ones to put in plastic bags
  • The queues.
  • Mobility scooters reversing noise.  
  • People (usually elderly) walking very slow in the middle of the aisle so you can’t get past. 
  • The hum of the fridge and freezers is really overwhelming.
  • People not walking in a straight line and seeming to move in random directions that I can’t predict. 
  • When the hanging aisle signs start swinging.
  • Badly placed display stands, that are just asking to be crashed into.
  • The smell of the pet food aisle.

Can you relate or do you think there anything on this list that you think was left off? Let me know in the comments.

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All Pictures shown are for illustration purpose only. The woman in the image is a model as the image is from a photo stock library.

Woman in supermarket photo by Phuong Tran

Products photo by Neonbrand

Sensory overload quote from https://www.autism.org.uk/about/behaviour/meltdowns.aspx


 

23 Comments

  1. Alex
    March 13, 2019 / 5:21 pm

    The possibility of randoms (people in shops/out and about) coming near you.

    People reaching for things right in front of you (but that might just be plain rudeness)

    People walking in front of where you are looking at something on a shelf.

    • Anna
      Author
      March 14, 2019 / 12:46 am

      Good one! Thanks for commenting.

  2. Jay
    March 14, 2019 / 12:56 am

    I find the actual shopping more complicated. If a recipe needs four things and i have 2 in my trolly and the shop doesn’t have no3 i get confused and will probably take those two items home beacuse I can’t adapt the the change.
    I get a basket if i need to carry my shopping far or i will get something thats too heavy and almost kill myself getting home.
    I find i can come back with some nice stuff that don’t go together very well.
    I don’t do well shoppingwith family or friends as i get distracted.

  3. JaQi
    March 15, 2019 / 8:51 pm

    Hi! I have not been evaluated but have come to realize that I am in the ASD spectrum. Interesting to find this article as it is the first example i used with my therapist when looking for answers, i thought it was just anxiety but I have come along in my understanding. . But yes, the grocery store, i dread it and have my husband go. I struggle with small talk and dread running into people i know, and to have to pass them again if we’re both there. I struggle with impulse purchsing and overwhelm. It is worse at our small coop. I really struggle with meal planning and cooking at this point, my strength is in clean up. 🙂 i agree with jay if something is not available or different than expected i become overwhelmed about what to get. And the aisle with the cleaning poisons in all store is the death zone to be avoided at all costs until we need garbage bags and hold our breath to them. I say we because I happen to be in a sensory sensitive family. Thank you for sharing!

  4. March 26, 2019 / 9:00 pm

    Lack of personal space at checkout, sopt on.

  5. March 26, 2019 / 9:35 pm

    The cleaning aisle!!! I send my husband down there. Or I use Mobile order and pickup which is a Godsend!!

  6. Jenna
    March 26, 2019 / 9:55 pm

    Mislabeled or randomly placed items so I have to go around extra isles (like why is the instant potatoes with soup and not pasta and rice?) When stores rearrange and do not have maps available. Noisy 🛒 carts/ trollies.

  7. Fiona Riches
    March 26, 2019 / 10:01 pm

    Possibility of seeing someone I know and them judging what I’m buying / having to make small talk with them. Flouro lights. Seeing bits of dead animals.

    • March 29, 2019 / 8:35 pm

      Ohh gawd the dead animals and the smell of them 😱 I relate to so much in this article but going through the cooler with the dead animals 😵

  8. Rosie S
    March 26, 2019 / 10:06 pm

    Factory settings needs a formal complaint to head office under disability legislation. They may not do anything but it starts a process of them thinking about it. Formal complaints, unlike ‘feedback’ or ‘suggestions’ have to be formally replied to and considered by law.

    I’ve done it myself at airports with over bright lighting, background music at security and music in the toilets.

  9. March 26, 2019 / 11:27 pm

    Signage, often way too much, inconsistent, things in wrong places for their signs. Trying to calculate value for money /ethical choices.

  10. Rachel
    March 27, 2019 / 12:30 am

    [Diagnosed 7 years ago at over 50 years old.] I wear earplugs for sound, I have developed a high tolerance for most scents and wear a baseball cap to block some of the light and glare.

    Other shoppers acting angry, mean and rude to each other is overwhelming.

    I CANNOT do the self checkout anymore. It was challenging before, but after a concussion the bleeping, flashing and ‘do this, no.. do that, WRONG! do it again’ puts me near to passing out.

    Older children ‘running amuck’, slamming into carts, nearly running into people, screaming, laughing, teasing. This seems to be a problem even into the early 20s. And I like teenagers.

    I have to shop alone. I LIKE to shop with friends, but they run out of patience if I go my own speed. As soon as they get frustrated, I try to go faster. Then I lock up trying to process what goes in my eyeballs.

    I actually enjoy going to some brightly lit stores during times they aren’t busy. Just to look, not buy. No decisions to make, or deadline. Just meander and play with eyeball candy. I find I crave it more on rainy days and winter. I have seasonal disorder.

    I really think most of us have PTSD from being forced to experience meltdown time and again.

    My meltdowns are usually implosions. Tremors, horrific headache, can’t process visual or auditory. Crying only if people won’t let me alone. I used to pass out. I was also ‘severely disciplined’ if I acted up as a child.

    Yelling rarely. Two people in my life simply would NOT stop prodding me to do one more thing ‘right now and get it over with’. They think I am lazy. They don’t realize they are punishing me for being in pain.

    Sad part is when you tell people what you CAN do, and they decide that they know better based only on what happens when they keep pushing. ‘I can do level 8 whatever.’ They push you through level 10 whatever until you lose it. Then say you can’t handle level 2, ever. Is this supposed to be motivating?

  11. March 27, 2019 / 3:16 am

    This happens annually, but the strong scent of those DAMN CINNAMON BROOMS or those DAMN CINNAMON PINECONES often burns my nose. Last year, though, they finally had the good sense to put the brooms in plastic bags.

    • Susan
      March 29, 2019 / 11:26 am

      Totally agree. Also, I guess from being shipped or stored near each other, even the bag your items go in at the register smells faintly of that and keeps carrying forward

  12. Samantha
    March 27, 2019 / 2:42 pm

    This is so relatable. Thanks for sharing.

  13. Richard
    March 27, 2019 / 4:20 pm

    Why just women? As a male autistic I have exactly the same issues at supermarkets. Unless we live in a supported environment, we do need to shop too, you know!
    Additional issues: the smell and/or sound of pest control mechanisms (some use aerosols sprayed on a timer, others use near-ultrasound that creates a high-pitched buzzing); the smell of hygiene products aisles (soap and hair conditioners are the worst); flickering lights and the reflections of them on everything; the sullen looks of store employees (I know it’s not their fault that they are underpaid); the pervading worship of consumerism apparent in in-store ads, shoppers etc. depresses me; a product I want or need being out of stock makes me anxious; bright and icky texture packaging on products. By the time I get to the till I am generally only semi-verbal from the anxiety and sensory stimulation and the extra stress of communicating with the cashier just makes it worse.

    • Anna
      Author
      March 27, 2019 / 4:27 pm

      Of course these issues are not just something that affects women. The reason it says women is because for this particular survey I only had access to autistic women so I thought I’d be truthful to the survey when making the title. I also was curious to see if these sensory issues would be different because we are female but it turns out it doesn’t make a difference. Thanks for asking.

  14. March 27, 2019 / 8:04 pm

    Oregon USA autistic here, age 57, gender-nonconforming. Thank you for this article, i shared to my pages. Describes my experience exactly. i used to shop Tuesday mornings when the store first opened, i asked the manager when the least busy time was. I used to use foam earplugs, but my best friend bought me some noise-cancelling headphones and they are a miracle. Yes expensive, but the benefits are priceless, including a very visible signal saying IT’S TOO LOUD AND PEOPLEY IN HERE, LEAVE ME ALONE PLEASE. Now if there was a similar device to neutralize smells……. 🙂

  15. Jacinta
    March 29, 2019 / 3:50 pm

    I often don’t realize how bothered I am until I have pushed myself too far. I’m having to learn to be proactive. I have spent a lifetime making myself “just deal with it”. This article helps remind me of the things that bother me. Bright lights, strong smells (mostly household cleaners and personal care products), beeping or dinging noises (more machines than anything), too many choices, people blocking ailes, and products moved, unavailable or discontinued. I will definitely use some of the strategies listed in the comments section. But above all respect my needs.

  16. Mandy Tomatore
    March 29, 2019 / 8:22 pm

    I am a germaphobe I think. I worry about everything when it comes to my kids foods. I cant stand when people wipe their nose or cough and than touch things. I also dont like when people cough near me or eat or touch their face like scratching.

  17. Kym
    March 30, 2019 / 2:10 am

    Problem: I’m about to swing something heavy up into the cart (case of soda or water) so I pause to let people around me clear away, but it’s perceived as helplessness and I get “do you need help with that?”
    This is mostly a (well intentioned) gendered/age thing (Im a short, young looking AFAB), but because I’m already feeling twitchy from the sensory overload, I get INFURIATED.
    I’m already stressed from navigating the parking lot before I ever set foot inside the store. I’m just trying to escape as fast as I can and when I try to be polite, I get diminished.

    Thanks for this list. I agree with most of these, especially the sounds and crowd. Ugh.

  18. Johanna Daniels
    April 1, 2019 / 6:48 am

    I have a real problem with whistling. It feels like I am being punched and squeezed causing me so much pain. Also the feeling of being trapped between the tills when some one is in front of you, you have your things on the belt and the next person comes up really close to start loading their things even though there is only a very small space. sometimes even pushing your stuff up so that they can start to load theirs.

  19. Lili Dewsbery
    April 3, 2019 / 3:35 am

    The isles I find most nauseating are any and all that contain large quantities of soaps, detergents, hair products, deodorants, bleaches, air fresheners, etc; but even worse than that are any containing fertilizers and other such gardening smelly stuff.

    I find any self-serve checkout horrific, because if I accidently press the wrong button when selecting my payment method or the like, or if something doesn’t scan properly for any reason, my cognitive brain functions shut down and anxiety kicks in big time, because the pattern got broken and now I don’t know what to do. I just freeze and then feel horrible that I’ve reacted that way because I know other people just want me to hurry up and move on so they can use the register, which makes me more anxious.

    I’d rather deal with avoiding eye contact and not talking to a check out operator. If they get offended or uncomfortable with my disinterest in being social with them, they haven’t worked that job for long enough. They serve hundreds of people every day, they don’t really want to socialise with every single person they come across, they’re just trained to do that for the sake of being polite and accommodating to the social desires of neurotypicals. I just put my items upon the counter, state bluntly whether or not I need a bag, if I’m paying by card when it comes time to pay I just hold it up for them to see so they know to put it through so I can scan my card, if using cash I just hand them the cash and accept the change, say thank you, pick my things up and go. If there is a problem of any kind, they deal with it, so I can just stand there, stare at the floor and wait for them to finish holding up the checkout line. 😀 I only come across a problem with this method when they’re doing a promotional give away thing and ask if I want whatever that thing is, or ask me some other such random thing… most of the time the background noise is preventing me from hearing most of what they say so I just save us both the agony of trying to communicate through that problem and say no – it usually works for most questions! LOL I also come undone in stores where there is no screen within my view showing me the total due and they have to tell me, again, can’t usually hear them too well so don’t know how much cash to hand over, but if using card that’s not such a problem so long as I have enough money in the bank.

    I deliberately only shop at known places at known times that don’t get crowded, as I really don’t do crowds well.

    Things getting moved/changed drives me up the wall, but I have learned to take a breath and “browse” by going up and down every isle meticulously in a well rehearsed pattern to find where they’ve put it. Brands changing their labels sends me into a label reading frenzy until I find what I’m looking for. Finding something is out of stock just makes me take what I can buy home and then go to another store to get what I missed later on after I’ve recovered enough to go out again.

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