What if every time you went to a store with toys, your child believed that he or she must, absolutely, have a toy?
I hear this or a similar story so often that I asked the last parent who told me his shopping woes if I could repeat my advice on my blog. So, I will tell this story with one delightful little boy named Aaron as the pretty much real character in the drama but substitute any young child and any public place and use or don't use an iPhone or iPod Touch if you want to try this strategy for shopping tantrum relief--it is the strategy that you want to pay attention to here.
First, the problem does not usually go away as the child gets older and develops more language--the tantrums may involve more language but children with autism get stuck in patterns and it is our job, as adults, to help them get unstuck. One of my kiddos would sometimes need to be removed from stores by the police because he got too big for his mom to manage. The younger a child is, the more portable he or she is. Start working on this problem behavior immediately.
Second, this problem behavior is not the child's fault. Children with autism repeat routines, good or bad, because of the disorder. All children do this to some extent but children with autism are much more insistent on repeating patterns. Parents don't get a manual when they have a child with autism, so parents should not be blamed either--they have no idea what they are getting themselves into the first time they agree to buying a toy (or whatever other demands the child makes). Often by the time a parent knows, the routine is "set in stone" as one mother described it. Make every effort to set aside your emotions of blame or guilt because neither is justified. Yeah, I know this might not feel possible to remain calm, but get support and start working on this problem behavior immediately.
An iPhone or iPod Touch can be helpful because it is so easy to make visual supports using these devices. But, the point is, you need pictures. Children believe what they see and most children argue less when there are pictures.
Step 1. Put two pictures on your device 1) at item you intend to buy at the store and 2) your home. Show these to your child and say, "We are going to buy a broom and then go home." For a less verbal child "First broom, then home."
Step 2. Go to a store where you have not bought your child anything in the past and where there are no toys. Buy the pictured item and then go home.
Step 3. Repeat Step 1 and 2 in other stores and vary the number of pictured items that you buy--but still avoid the problem store. If your child wants something at one of these stores and tantrums--just leave the store as calmly as possible and go home. Do not lecture or argue. Just go home. When your child seems to understand the relationship between the pictures and what you buy, then go on to step 4.
Step 4. If possible, bring another person with you on this trip to act as support. Put a picture of a sad face on your i-Device. Buy one pictured item and then go home--perhaps a little flashlight if it is displayed close to the checkout counter. If your child begins to try to get you to buy a toy (or whatever), show the picture of the sad face and with a sad voice say "Sorry, Bad News". Just flashlight today." Then, don't negotiate. If you have to carry your child out of the store screaming and kicking, do that and let your support person get the flashlight. Don't negotiate for a another item. Don't argue, scold, or even talk. This is very important. It can be very rewarding for a child to get a parent angry. It is also harder for a child to calm down if a parent is angry. Use your support person to help you stay calm.
Step 5. Repeat this teaching activity several more times--and always with an understanding that you are there to help your child establish a new pattern--not shop. If you think you are there to shop, it will be much harder to stay calm and do what you need to do.
Repeat as often as needed. At some point, you will know that your child is comfortable going to the problem store/s without buying a toy.
How many trips will you need to take to the store to teach this skill? The visual supports (pictures) really help and will set the stage for a new pattern more quickly than not using pictures. I have had a parent use pencil drawings done on the back of an envelope and even this was helpful. If your child already has learned the key phrase "Sorry, Bad News!" and understands that when you say this, you never, ever, ever change your mind, this will make the process go faster. But, the truth is, I don't know how long it will take. I know that if you don't do it, it will take longer and be harder when you eventually do help your child learn this skill.