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Brenda Kosky Deskin
BY Brenda Kosky Deskin

15 Tips To Help Individuals With Special Needs Shop For Groceries

Many individuals who have special needs are very capable of learning new skills, but need to have these novel tasks broken down into more manageable segments in order to master them.

Grocery shopping is a perfect example. There are so many steps and goals involved in a visit to the grocery store that it may at first seem overwhelming to the teacher and learner alike.

Take a step back, break these tasks down and follow some of these tips and suggestions  and you’ll be making progress before you know it!

1. Set appropriate and realistic goals

Give some serious thought to what your goals actually are before you start teaching. Goals should be based on your learner’s specific needs and abilities. You should strive to work toward some level of independence, bearing in mind that not everyone’s ultimate goal has to be – nor even should be –  completely self-sufficiency.

Keep that bar raised high, but not too high that the goals you set are unattainable. Set yourself and your learner up for success. Down the road you can always change things up and reevaluate your objectives. Nothing is black and white here – your goal is to promote as much independence as can reasonably be expected.

2. Break tasks down into “sub-tasks”

The task of “getting grapes” for example, may be overambitious for some learners. You may have to break things down into “sub-tasks”. We all know how tricky it can be to tear those pesky produce bags off the roll and open them up. Work on this first, on its own, before grapes even come into the picture.

3. Don’t wing it

Grocery stores can get busy. Your learner may exhibit some unpredictable behaviors. These are factors that are beyond your control. All the more reason to eliminate whatever unpredictability you can. Do this by being well-prepared before entering that grocery store. Know what your learning targets are and how you are going to teach them. Develop a Task Analysis well in advance to guide you in your teaching.

4. Use backward chaining

Going through your entire Task Analysis may at first be too overwhelming and require an unreasonable amount of patience on the part of your learner. Use Backward Chaining and start with the last step in your Task Analysis first. Once your learner masters this step, go to the second last one, and so on, and before you know it, he or she will be able to carry out the entire task from start to finish.

5. Make a checklist for your student

A checklist is important so your learner can always know how much progress has been made and what is left to accomplish before he or she can leave the store. Embedded into this checklist should be the actual shopping list – the items that he or she should be purchasing. Perhaps to start, there may only be one item on his list.

Whether your list is electronic or made with an old-fashioned pen and paper, make sure it is it “checkable” so your student can more easily follow the sequence of events and get a sense of accomplishment after completing each and every step.

6. Visit the same store

At least in the beginning, go to the exact same store every time. Depending on what your goals are, you may just want to teach your learner how to shop at one particular supermarket. Down the road, if and when you feel your learner is ready, you can then work on generalization of his or her newly acquired grocery shopping skills to other supermarkets.

7. Make grocery shopping fun and rewarding

The most successful teaching outcomes happen when learning is fun. You want your learner to develop a positive associations with grocery shopping. One way to ensure this is to end every trip to the store with something rewarding, like being able to sit and enjoy a donut from the bakery or a bag of his or her favorite chips right after checking out.

My son likes visiting the fish tank at the seafood counter so I’m sure to always include this activity in our supermarket visits.

8. Make sure that your shopping list is meaningful and relevant 

Even if you need cottonballs, don’t put them on your list. Only include items on your shopping list that are meaningful and relevant to your learner’s life so he or she has the opportunity to recognize the inherent value and purpose of grocery shopping.

If he loves yogurt, put it on the list. If she eats greenbeans – but only under duress – I’d hold off on them for awhile and keep them on your own shopping list instead.

9. Use images and photographs

Picture-based student checklists are very helpful to many individuals who have learning challenges. Some learners may do better with actual photographs of items, while others fare well with simple illustrations. Find out what works best for your learner and create visuals accordingly. You may opt to laminate them. If you don’t, I can pretty much guaranty a lot of reprinting becoming necessary!

10. Go when the store is not busy

Do your best to avoid long line-ups and crowds by planning your visits during non-busy hours. Staff and shoppers are much more likely to be patient and helpful if they are not pressured by a store full of customers. It’s also very likely that your stress level and that of your learner will likely be significantly reduced when the store is quiet.

11. Practice at home

If there are certain skills that can be taught at home, by all means work on them there. For example, you can practice opening those tricky produce bags off-site, or work on monetary transactions at home or school as well.

You can also teach supermarket-relevant vocabulary at home like “shopping cart”, “cashier”, etc. not to mention working on labels and categories of various foods and other items your learner will be purchasing.

12. Don’t make these trips YOUR time to grocery shop

Your goal on these trips should be to teach your learner, not to replenish your pantry. As tempting as it may be to pick up a few things here and there, focus on his or her needs, not your own.

13. Go high-tech

This one is optional but being the techy girl that I am, I couldn’t resist including it! There are some great apps out there for making shopping lists, including ones created especially for individuals with special needs like i See-quence… Going to the Grocery Store, a picture-based app that in my opinion is well worth the the $2.99 investment.

14. Take data

Data can be extremely beneficial to successfully teaching a new skill to a person with special needs. Grocery shopping is no exception. For more information on the how-to’s of data collection and why data is so important, check out a recent blog of mine entitled, “D-A-T-A: Not The Four-Letter Word You Thought It Was!”

15. Be patient

Don’t expect immediate results. The process of grocery shopping is one that is very multi-faceted and may take some time to master. Celebrate the little victories and be sure to praise your learner (and yourself!) for all of his or her accomplishments – both big and small!


Do you have a suggestion for a life skill you’d like me to blog about in the future? If so, I’d love to hear it! Please email your recommendations to me at [email protected]

Brenda Kosky Deskin

Written on August 27, 2012 by:

Brenda Kosky Deskin is the parent of a child with Autism and Founder and Editor of, a one-of-a-kind website and online directory dedicated to providing vital resources and information to the international Autism community.

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