Shopping at the supermarket is a pretty basic life skill, which many kids pick up automatically, from immersion and casual observation. Other children benefit from more deliberate modelling. However, some – like Dancing Wombat – need frequent, purposeful and structured teaching. It’s an epic process and that’s where Dancing Wombat becomes Supergirl.

The more we can equip our children with skills to manage independently, the more opportunities will open up for them. I call it the “snowball effect”. The bigger the snowball, the more snow clings to it. The more skills our children learn, the more they can learn. If their needs are deep and profound, severely restricting the level of their learning, we must at the very least expose them to new experiences.

In helping Dancing Wombat to roll her own “snowball”, I’ve planned a new chall… “Learning opportunity”! Cooking!

Good ol’ home cooking

My attempts to get Dancing Wombat involved in cooking at home have been sporadic, to say the least. After-school activities makes it almost impossible to allocate the time necessary for her to wash, chop, peel, stir or otherwise help prepare the evening meal. Even on Saturdays, she is often out with her Social group.

But she’s in Year 12 next year. Choices about post-school options loom alarmingly large. I really need to get seriously organised. Of the four “work stations” she undertook this year, she enjoyed her Catering unit most. It might be a pathway she can pursue on leaving school.

Cooking duties

At school Dancing Wombat does a weekly cooking class, run for students with mild intellectual disabilities. At home, when I remember and have the time, I get her to help me. She’s also on a roster to chop veggies for our guinea pigs.

Now, as of last Sunday, she has a new duty: choosing, shopping for and preparing Sunday night’s dinner.

This won’t be as easy as it might sound. Before she even starts cooking, she will need to:

  • choose what to make
  • prepare a shopping list
  • walk to the supermarket independently (OK – with supervision, at first!)
  • choose a trolley or basket and handle these herself – together with her shopping list
  • find the ingredients she needs
  • take her shopping to the checkout
  • choose which aisle to go through. If she chooses “self serve”, she’ll need to pack the items herself. If she chooses an aisle with a customer assistant, she’ll need to engage socially
  • manage payment. Do I give her cash or give her my card to use on the pin pad?
  • put the shopping trolley or basket back while carrying her shopping
  • carry her shopping home

Why will these things be challenging? Partly because of the way autism affects her, and partly because of her other challenges. Perhaps you face similar issues with your children.

Nevertheless, whether our kids are six, sixteen or sixty-six, the more things are broken down, the more we can help them achieve success, step by step.

Let me explain why these things are difficult for Dancing Wombat.

Why is it challenging?
What supports or structure am I using to try and help?

1. Choosing what to make

She gets crippled by choice. “I don’t know.” Is her go-to answer.

Using one recipe book, with recipes which use only four ingredients.

2. Preparing a shopping list

Handwriting is hard.

Encourage her to type the list in ‘Notes’ on her phone.

3. Walk to the supermarket independently

While the supermarket is only ten minutes’ walk away, she stops to look at every sign.

Walking with her at first, then shadowing her, then going ahead and setting a time to meet her at the supermarket.

4. Choose a trolley or basket and handle these herself, together with the shopping list

This could be broken into three:

choosing what to put her shopping in – choice is hard

physically managing whatever she chooses – motor issues

handling the basket/trolley and her phone without dropping the phone or running into someone – motor issues.

Walking around with her the first few times, while she gets used to being in charge of the shopping, instead of a helper. Alerting her to possible hazards – pedestrians, shelves etc! Reminding her to put her phone away in her bag between checking items. Time consuming, but probably necessary as she develops her trolley/basket-handling skills.

5. Finding the ingredients she needs

Her short-sightedness makes it hard to quickly locate relevant aisles.

Her need to read creates a time-consuming distraction.

Consistently shopping at the same, slightly smaller supermarket so she gets familiar with the layout and where things are. Going with her at first (second, etc) to help her stay on task.

6. Taking her shopping to the checkout

Physically locating the check-outs and managing the queues can be challenging.

It’s hard for her to keep her head up and be aware of the cues that it’s her turn.

Practising with her.

7. Choosing which aisle to go through

Making a choice – self-serve, or check-out chick or chap?

If the former, she’ll need to pack by herself – physically challenging. Also challenging from an organisational perspective – she likes to pack things a certain way.

If the latter, she needs to handle social interaction – socially challenging!

Practising with her.

Working out which bags work best at the self-serve.

8. Managing payment.

Cash (more motor issues, but a good opportunity for Maths practice working out change) or my card?

This might depend on the contents of my wallet! Both are important things to practise, and she’ll need my support at first.

9. Putting the shopping trolley/basket back while also carrying her shopping Physically challenging, because of her motor issues, and also the ASD. She can take a long time to get the shopping bag in juuust the right position on her shoulder.


Consider taking a backpack, rather than a shopping bag. This will keep her hands free. But makes it more awkward to manage her phone – she HATES things in her pocket, so carries her phone in a little shoulder bag.

Perhaps consider a bum bag for her phone. It will keep it accessible, but still enable her to carry her back pack.

10. Carrying her shopping home Physically challenging – see above. Be with her, until she has had more practice. This favours the backpack idea, as she’s used to carrying her school bag.


Wow – who would have thought that supermarket shopping was so involved? Well, it is. And that’s even before you get into handling all the other sensory issues involved with going to the supermarket. Not applicable to everyone, but relevant for some: lights, noise, bustling crowds… It can be melt-down territory.

She came, she saw, she shopped

We started the new routine last Sunday. Choosing the meal was easy. Dancing Wombat wanted to reprise a recipe she’d made once before from this book of four ingredients. Also, needing only four ingredients means a shorter shopping list. Cunning, eh?

I fetched her paper and a pencil to write the list down. She objected to the pencil, preferring a pen. Would she like to write the list on her phone, I asked. Yes, she would. Done.

We walked to the supermarket together. She only stopped to read one tram timetable, one electricity sub-station notice and one advertising hoarding, but stopped to adjust her clothing at least half a dozen times…Sigh.

At the supermarket, she wanted a plastic basket on wheels, not a carry basket or metal trolley. There were none in sight. This confounded her, and she didn’t want to choose between the remaining options. In the end, she chose a shallow supermarket trolley.

This started rolling downhill almost immediately when she let go of it to get her phone. I pointed out that she either needed to find flat ground before she could let go, or rest it against something to stop it moving. Like the conveniently placed apple bin.

On our walk, we had discussed the different sections of the supermarket where her ingredients were located: deli for the bacon and semi-dried tomatoes, fridge section for the cream cheese and sour cream, meat section for the chicken. (Yes, it was a protein and dairy-heavy meal!)

At the deli, the semi-dried tomatoes were near the back of the cabinet and hard to see. Then, the assistant thought that Dancing Wombat was asking for “salami”. My girl, lost in her own little world again, didn’t realise that her request had been misheard. I needed to prompt her to repeat her request more clearly.

Then she needed to make another request, and another choice for the bacon. This involved a price comparison. I asked here, as there were two piles of bacon that looked identical, with vastly different prices. Then Dancing Wombat ordered.

She found the meat section with ease, but needed help locating the sign which said “Chicken”. Her process of elimination began with the meat trays themselves, rather than the different sections. The fridge section was even more complicated, being much bigger and in the process of being restocked.

She chose to go through the self-serve, and scanned everything herself. My floppy bags were awkward for her to pack. We’ll use the stiff, refrigerator supermarket bags next time. At least she didn’t encounter Ms “Unexpected Item in the Bagging Area”! I gave her my card to pay with, to practise using the keypad.

In the end, I held the shopping while she returned the trolley. There were lots of obstacles in the way, and the floor was sloped. You prioritise.

We ended up with two bags of shopping, having bought some extra things, so we carried one each. At the second last intersection, Dancing Wombat wanted to run – practice for a triathlon the next weekend. How could I refuse to carry her bag for that block?

Overall, my Supergirl, aka Dancing Wombat, managed well, for her first supermarket trip when she was in charge. She’s not ready to go solo, but she’s made a start.

Aiming for the goal

Consider – what’s one small area of life skills that you could help your children with over the holidays? Or a friend’s child? One goal to try and work on? I often set far too many goals, and run out of time. Yet sometimes, during the year, I realise that actually my daughter has achieved one or more of them. There are plenty still to go – putting in hair bands and coping with safety pins, hair washing, regular teeth cleaning spring to mind…

It takes time, effort, patience and planning. And careful choice of goals, which I don’t always get right. But we keep plugging along!

Now, if you want to find out what Dancing Wombat cooked with all those ingredients, you’ll have to tune in next week.

Until then, Happy Wombatting!