A couple of weeks ago, Matt – as he often does – approached me and made a completely random statement. He said, “Dad, I want to go to the store by myself.”
After some discussion and a few follow up questions, it turned out that he wanted to go grocery shopping and buy his own food. For a 12-year old, this meant POG juice, Golden Grahams, whipped cream and some Coke.
As a parent, I applaud his continued thirst for independence. Yet at the same time I cringed at the thought of sending a 12-year old child with autism into a crowded grocery store, on a weekend, without knowing the store’s layout, with cash and a shopping list by himself.
We discussed whether or not he should use a cart vs. a basket, what brand names to look for and how to keep an approximate running total in his head. I told him not to worry about the various in-store promotions like “Buy 3, Get 1 Free” and if the store was out of stock on any of his items, skip that item and move on. It would be a short list, no coupons and easy to find items. For his first time, this needed to be as simple as possible.
I also had to promise that I wouldn’t go into the store and follow him around.
I was immediately reminded of a line from comedian Ron White when he put his son an airplane by himself for the first time. He sarcastically told the airline employee:
“I’m going to pin a $20 bill to his collar and wish him the best of luck.”
Unfortunately, that was the best strategy I could think of; hell, it was the only strategy I could think of. Yet the boy was determined.
So at 2:00 pm on a Sunday afternoon, we pulled into a very crowded Albertson’s parking lot and let the adventure begin. He had $20 and three items on his list: POG juice, chocolate milk and hamburger buns. I watched him walk into the store and pondered who was more nervous: him or me.
Would he find what he was looking for? Would he deviate from his list? Would he get frustrated and act out? Would the crowded aisles pose a problem? What if he didn’t have enough money, how would he respond?
About 20 ulcer-inducing minutes later I get a text saying: “I got everything on my list. I will be going to the checkout.”
Crisis averted. Though in reality, there was no crisis. There was little reason to feel anxious. He knew what he was doing and simply went out and did it.
As he told the story afterwards, he had to ask an employee for help on finding the hamburger buns. And in a twist I should’ve seen coming, but didn’t, he chose to go to self-checkout to avoid the long lines with the cashiers (in which he needed a little more help as he was unfamiliar with how to insert the cash).
He’s since gone shopping (alone) a second time, with a slightly longer list (and a coupon!) This second time he was actually forced to put an item back when he went over the $20 limit. Lesson learned.
Whether he knows it or not, Matt is setting an example for others with autism. In some ways, I’d like to think that he’s setting the bar. It’s not always easy, but he works hard, takes chances and – despite all my own parental worries and apprehensions – he’s a better person because of it.