2 adults holding child's hand between them carrying shopping bags

Shopping with and For Special Needs

Read Time 4 Minutes

If August comes, can back-to-school sales be far behind? For those who like getting an early start on things and saving money as a bonus, the next tax-free weekend is just a few days away (August 5–7 in Texas).

You and your children may be anticipating the back-to-school season eagerly—or with dread. One classic point of concern: do you or don’t you take the kids along when buying school supplies? Today, that question comes with another: should you avoid the in-store scene altogether, and do all your shopping digitally?

Wanted: Reasonable Accommodations for Shopping

If your kids have autism or sensory processing disorders, such questions can be hard to answer without shuddering. Take the kids to the sale, and risk a public meltdown from overstimulation. Buy everything yourself, and risk an at-home meltdown if something proves uncomfortable or hard to figure out. Or if whatever the kids get is different from what they would have chosen.

That last possibility is a common cause of hard feelings, with or without special needs in the picture. Few kids are really thrilled when surprised with a back-to-school package they had no part in choosing. Their typical reaction is that their dignity has been insulted by parents who consider them incapable of intelligent decisions—and the parents, who thought they were doing the kids a big favor, are in turn hurt by the “ungrateful” response.

However well you know your kids’ tastes, don’t start back-to-school shopping before inviting them to take an active role. 

Getting Started

The best tool for any shopping trip is a shopping list—insurance against forgetting important items or impulse-buying unnecessary ones. Start a day or two ahead: if you make a list in a last-minute rush, you’re bound to leave off some items and forget the right size or brand for others.

List-making is also the first opportunity to involve your children in the shopping, whether they communicate their preferences verbally, in writing, or via an image-based communications app. A list-making app is also helpful: try Amazon’s Alexa for speeding up the process with instant voice-based updates.

Finally, before you declare the shopping list complete, double-check your budget—and double-check your cabinets/closets/storage unit in case you already have some of the items you’ve listed.

Shopping with Special-Needs Family Members

In-person shopping with kids requires additional planning—and potential challenges aren’t limited to autism-triggered meltdowns. What alternate route will you take if there’s no space to get a wheelchair through without bruising some passerby’s ankle? How will you keep everyone together if your child has a vision impairment and can’t hear you over crowd noise?

On crowded sale days, it’s best to shop in places where your family is already familiar with the layout and accommodations. Limit time in crowds by visiting outside of peak hours and planning your route through the store(s) in advance. Also, to head off meltdowns if a first-choice item is sold out, have a Plan B ready (and make sure the kids know about it).  

Check the store’s app for additional time- and stress-saving recommendations. And to end the day on a positive note, plan a favorite relaxing activity for the post-shopping hour.

Shopping for Special-Needs Family Members

If your children won’t be joining you for the actual shopping, make doubly sure you’re clear on what they want and don’t want. And remember: while scheduling a solo trip is easier than bringing the whole crowd, it doesn’t guarantee everything will go smoothly. Your special-needs child (not to mention the rest of your household) deserves better than to have you return in a surly mood, even if it took you eight stores and three crowded parking lots to find everything on the list. As with the group outing, it’s a good idea to reserve some time for a more relaxing activity before heading home.

You may have a more difficult challenge besides asking the kids whether they want to come along. Sad but true, the children with the least tolerance for crowds are often the same kids who are hardest to please when it comes to wearables—so if it’s bargain-sale-level-busy in the store but you never can be sure what your child will find comfortable until she personally tries it on, you may have few options except buying triple the needed items and hoping you can return everything that doesn’t pass inspection. In such a case, you may have to save your shopping for off-peak hours on non-sale days, spending a little extra money for the sake of your child’s and your own nerves. Alternatively, try a resale shop where prices are lower and the clothing is often more comfortable for having been “gently used.”

Again, get direct input from the kids wherever possible. They may have even better ideas—or they may be better able to tolerate the shopping experience when they feel it’s their choice.

Digital Shopping

All-digital shopping may seem like an easy way to avoid the above challenges. However, there’s always a risk of shipments being delayed, damaged, or stolen en route—a point to consider if the first day of school is imminent and you need supplies within the week. It’s also harder to make digital shopping a whole-family project, especially if working with several people and one small ordering screen.

If you do decide to do all or part of your shopping digitally, don’t neglect the all-important shopping list just because you’ll be “working from home.” Impulse buys and forgotten items can happen online as easily as in the three-dimensional world. And while “going back” for an overlooked item is easier with digital shopping, it still takes unnecessary time and often extra shipping expenses.

When done well, however, digital shopping saves not only the hassle of in-person crowds, but most risks of buying the wrong item or being unable to find something. For the frequent digital shopper (and saver), BridgingApps recommends the following:

  • Amazon Shopping app: organizes orders for everything from textbooks to art supplies to midday snacks. For items that need frequent replenishing, there is also an auto-shipping option.
  • Groupon: a major database for shopping bargains and coupons, from an array of businesses.
  • Rakuten: another shopping-deals resource, full of Cash Back opportunities and other money-saving options.

Check the BridgingApps database for additional apps relevant to shopping, also school and learning. Whatever shopping approach works best for your family is ultimately your decision. Just remember to take that approach with your children and not simply for them!

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