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