Have you ever seen a child having a breakdown in the middle of a grocery store? What’s your reaction to that child? Do you judge, or do you wonder what they’re experiencing? Well, I can give you an idea of what they might be experiencing.
Today, I made my weekly visit to the grocery store. It’s something I now take for granted but never find easy. In fact, I often choose to shop at very strange hours—because the experience is so overwhelming. And I’m an adult.
As I was walking through the store today, I was thinking about what I’ve learned about the differences between how neurotypical people experience a chaotic environment such as a grocery store, versus how those of us on the spectrum do. In conversations with those who don’t share my sensory issues, I’m often amazed to hear how much the average person can “tune out,” which I cannot.
I’ve gotten so used to the overload of shopping, I don’t really parse it out. But, today, as I ran the sensory gauntlet, I wondered how many non-autistic people are truly aware of the cacophony of sounds and sensory experiences such an environment entails. So, I started chronicling the sensory experience.
I walk in the door, which opens with a “swish”—and am immediately greeted by the crash of carts. I stop to examine my grocery list. Another shopper ducks in front of me, picking up a bag of chips. They examine it, turning it over and over in their hands, the changing pressure of their fingers against the bag creating a “crackle crackle crackle” that grates over my eardrums like sandpaper. Another cart passes by me which I can’t see, but can identify by sound. The front right wheel emits a high-pitched, steady squeal that feels like an icepick.
The next aisle over is a checkout, heralded by a steady bip-bip-bip and rumble of voices and laughter. To the left somewhere, a loud buzz sounds—a klaxon-like emission that makes even the typical shoppers jump. Another cart crashes over the threshold and rattles as it bu-bump bu-bumps over the tiled floor. In the far corner of the store, I hear voices, I don’t know who they are, or what they’re saying. The bip-bip-bips are faster now. Someone must have bought a lot of groceries.
At that end of the aisle, a door closes with a “slappa slap.” The crackling begins again. This time, I can’t see from where. Then, what is that? Another different, slap-like sound—I can only guess it’s the sound of a paper bag being popped open. A high-pitched squeal sounds somewhere in the store. A child is unhappy. Another slap. Another paper bag.
Carts continue to rattle down the aisle. Suddenly I hear a new sound. I look up to see an employee leading a motorized pallet jack down the aisle. It emits a “Roooom rooom rrrrrrrrrrrr uh” sound. Behind two rubber-rimmed swinging doors, something whines. I'm in the frozen area now, and I am surrounded by the steady, rolling whoosh of the refrigerated cases.
"AAAAAH!" I hear out of nowhere. The outburst is echoed by a deeper, less animated, voice. A conversation between a toddler and her father. With a staccato slap, a refrigerated door closes. Dad and daughter walk away, the wheel of their cart squealing as they go. It’s the same squeal I heard when first entering the store.
The backroom whine starts up again. The klaxon rings. Slap! A door shuts. Behind me, a sharp crackle crackle crackle. The klaxon goes again. A couple of women pass, in intense conversation. Another cart passes, with another distinct squeak: “Squeaka, squeaka, squeaka, squeak.” Clink! Clink! Clink! At the other end of the store, I hear the ring of glass bottles striking against one another.
Slap! Another door shuts. To my right, another shopper is wearing heavy-soled shoes, “Clip, clop, clip, clop.” An elderly man, carefully considering his produce purchase, drags his feet as he walks, “Swish, swish, swish.” Two women laugh together. Bash! Something big and metallic falls behind the swinging doors. It sounds like a gong.
The whine begins again. Someone walks by, she's carrying a tortilla chip bag which she rearranges as she walks, creating a steady crinkle, crackle, crinkle. Beep, beep! Somewhere behind the doors, someone’s driving a forklift. Slap! A shopper pulls out a bag of lettuce. She purses her lips, and holds the bag as if weighing it, considering whether to buy it. Crinkle, crackle, crinkle.
A mother wrestles with her giggling daughter for control of the cart. Bip, bip, bip. The bottles. Crackle, crackle, crackle. I'm by the checkout now, a checker has to type something in. The keys make a high-pitched “beep, beep, beep,” then the bips begin again. Slap! There goes another door. The Klaxon goes.
To the right, a voice makes me jump. “Look! It’s Pez! Pez is here, too!” It’s one of two girls dressed in pink, talking to her mother from a shared seat in the cart. I don’t hear what the mother has to say, but the sisters’ groaned response (“Awww!”) gives an idea. A different voice next to me bursts out, “We should totally do that!”
I’m at the dairy case. Someone's coming up behind me. I can’t see her, but I can smell her. Perfume radiates several feet from her. It’s a chemical smell, and I feel like my nose is being dry cleaned. I've been in the store for 30 minutes now, and my sensory issues are at their limit. The whoosh of the refrigeration cases has started to become distorted. “Wavy" fading in and out.
A black mist has descended over my vision. I must fight to focus through it. My vision has become subtly pixellated, like a pointillist painting, and I see after images each time I change focus. Little bright spots dance across my vision. My ears hurt, my head hurts, and I feel nauseous, but I can’t leave. Not yet.
There is a crowd 10-deep at the checkout, including the two girls in pink, whose mother is loudly talking to them. I have to wait until the crowd thins out, or risk further overload. I watch and wait until the line is smaller. Behind two senior citizens, I unload my purchases and try to shut out the sound of 15 people slowly making their way out of the store. By the time I get to the checkout, all I can hear is an undifferentiated mass of sound. I am no longer able to delineate individual sounds from one another. They meld together.
I know the next step beyond this is complete deafness when my brain simply gives up on trying to make sense of this morass. And, at this point, I might as well be deaf because I can barely understand anything the checker says to me—something that seems to annoy her. Suddenly, I’m startled when something bursts into my consciousness. Singing. Who’s singing? I look over, and it’s the girl in pink. But she’s not singing, she’s crying—her face red, mouth turned down at the edges. Why did I think she was singing?
I have to bring back my focus, so I do. I pay, pack up and leave. Afterward, I sit in the car in quiet, taking deep breaths. I have to get the black mist to subside before I drive. I have to gather the strength to focus through it. As I calm myself, I think about the experience. Overall, it’s actually been a pretty good one. Only a few of my senses are on high alert. The tactile defensiveness that can often send me over the edge isn’t in play.
Likewise, as tough as it was, the environment was not at all what some are. This store was very small—not at all like a typical grocery store or big-box discount store. The entire store had only about four aisles and it lacked a lot of the typical sensory barriers that most such stores have. No TV screens spouting ad spots. No loud muzak. No loudspeaker announcements.
And, I’m an adult. I’ve had decades to learn how to cope with this. I know when it happens, why it happens, and have the means to work around it. All of which makes it easier for me. But what if I were a child, without any of that knowledge and experience? How frightening would that be? Subject to all of this, without knowing why. Feeling the world spin out of control without warning. I’m glad I’m not there anymore, but a lot are.
So, the next time you see a child melting down in a store, please stop for a moment to consider. Try to tune into the sounds and sensory experiences that you normally tune out. Try to imagine what it must feel like to experience them full force, at the type of intensity that can send even an experienced person over the edge.
Then, imagine you’re a child.
And act accordingly.