Like many other autistic kids, 5-year-old NavyAnna is entranced by the lights, sounds and colors of the typical grocery store.
She and her mother, Kristin Jackowski, often attract the attention of other shoppers as NavyAnna has a meltdown and her mom tries to restore calm. A final battle might be waged at the checkout counter when NavyAnna spots a candy bar and is told she cannot have it.
“She already has low impulse control—think of all the triggers,” said Jackowski. “It’s overwhelming at the end.”
Mother and daughter had an unpleasant shopping experience at a Target, which prompted Jackowski to start and online petition asking the store to create a special checkout lane for families with autistic children. Target didn’t respond to the petition and didn’t respond to a request for comment.
A ShopRite in Brookhaven proved more receptive to Jackowski’s request and opened a “sensory checkout” to accommodate families with autistic children.
“It wasn’t difficult at all,” said Paul Kourtis, the manager of the store located at 5075 Edgmont Ave. “It took me three days of planning, research, putting an order in, waiting for the stuff to come in and putting it on the racks.”
Jackowski encouraged Kourtis and his staff to stock the checkout lanes with Play-Doh, bubbles, coloring books and other objects that can be a more productive reward for kids instead of candy.
“I usually have to give her what’s called a fidget toy,” said Jackowski. “She works through her emotions that way.”
The special checkout lines are marked with a sign that includes the image of four interlocking puzzle pieces. The puzzle pieces symbolize a sense of acceptance.
Checkout lines are a challenge for families with autistic children, said Dr. Jeanne Leachrer of Philadelphia Autism Center for Excellence.
“It’s overstimulation,” she said. “They feel overwhelmed and the kids feel it often. It’s fear or anxiety, and they don’t always understand. They don’t have the same coping mechanisms.”
The CDC reports that one in 68 children is diagnosed with a condition that puts them on the Autism Spectrum. This can also be referred to as having Autism Spectrum Disorder, or ASD. A simple shopping trip requires that parents prepare their autistic child with instructions and expectations before entering the store.
“It’s harder to set limits,” said Leachrer. “For a child on the Spectrum, they hone in on specific items. They’re much more rigid in their thinking.”
Creating the sensory checkout at ShopRite was a smart business move and demonstrates how the store responds to the needs of its community, said Kourtis.
“I’ve been in the business for 19 years--how this didn’t come up until now, I don’t know,” he said. “It’s the easiest change ever.”