Get notice of new posts
Connect with me!
Help Support Our Climb
Damn Fine Words Writing Course

Building Community: one grocery trip at a time

Day 261: Shopping Haul
Creative Commons License photo credit: crimsong19

Building Community: One Grocery Trip at a Time

With Aaron, my son with the label of autism, every trip to the grocery is an adventure.

Before we go, I usually do an ecological assessment (click here) and use some of the skills Aaron learned in his functional curriculum when he was in school.

Establishing Routines

Over the years and with lots of practice, I know what Aaron likes and dislikes. I try to make the shopping trip a good experience for both of us.

We try to go in the morning when the store isn’t crowded. We’ve developed a system where I walk in front of the cart making sure there is no person or display in the way. Aaron then follows pushing the cart with both hands on the handle.

Aaron is really good at following and knows to stop when I stop. He seldom bumps other people or the displays. This is a skill we have worked on for years and practice every week. I am really proud Aaron can do this.

We usually go to the same store.

That way Aaron is familiar with the physical space and layout. He knows the grapes and carrots are on the right front, the bread is in the right back, and after we pick up the milk and yogurt on the far left we will head to the checkout lanes. We usually only buy about ten items so the wait in line is short. We try to build a routine and structure into the experience.

We try to build a relationship with the store personnel.

This store was only a mile from where Aaron went to high school but in the suburbs we rarely see anyone we know. One of the baggers used to be in the special education program. She does a good job and always says hello. Some of the regular shoppers talk to her by name. She is one of our special ed. success stories and has been employed for over 10 years.

But I never know what’s going to happen.

Yesterday we went to the grocery near Tommy’s house because we wanted to let his dog out for him. Even though it was the same chain we always go to, the store was set up differently. STRESS.

I thought noon on a Sunday would be okay, but it was packed and everyone was in a hurry because the football game was due to begin at 1 PM and the only way to survive a football game is with lots of beer and snacks. STRESS. STRESS.

Being ready for surprises

Aaron did pretty well. We got our groceries and went to the car. I was putting the bags in the trunk when Aaron started pounding on the roof of the car next to us. He’s never done that before.

The young man was getting his two young daughters out of the passenger side. He looked up and yelled, “Hey, stop that!”

Quickly I grabbed Aaron and was about to get him into his seat when Aaron pushed me away and again pounded on the top of the car. This time the guy came over to our side of the car.

I started to apologize when the guy said, “Aaron, is that you?”

Aaron gave him a side-ways glance.

I was stunned and didn’t quite know what to say. I looked at the guy and he looked at me, and he repeated, “Is that Aaron?”

There wasn’t much room in the space between the two cars. I took a deep breath and turned Aaron toward the young man. “Aaron do you know him?”

Instead of punching Aaron, the man gave Aaron a high-five.

I fumbled out a, “How do you know Aaron?” and the young man said they went to high school together. He said he used to come into Aaron’s class and take him to the gym. He said he and Aaron used to eat lunch together.

He touched Aaron’s arm and guided him over to the other side of his car and introduced Aaron to his two children who were about 5 and 3 years old. He told them Aaron was a friend from school and then had Aaron give them each a high-five.

Aaron was strangely quiet. He patted the younger child on the head and said, “Ahh.”

I thanked the man for saying hello. He said his name was Todd and he asked a couple questions about where Aaron lived.

We both talked about how Aaron must have recognized him and since he didn’t have any words, he used the pounding on the car to get attention. We both thought that was very clever of Aaron.

Finding More than Groceries

When we worked so hard for inclusion for Aaron in the public schools, we dreamed that Aaron would have a community of people who knew and accepted him. People who could see his gifts and strengths.

Every once in a while we have a unique success story that makes all that hard work worth it.

We’ve never expected big monumental experiences. This magic moment where Todd remembers Aaron and thinks enough of him to want to introduce him to his children–that’s big enough.


I hope you will check out a couple of the other blog articles and share your thoughts.
Do you have any community experiences to share? Any magic moments?
Do you think the future will be better for adults with disabilities because of inclusion in the schools?

Keep Climbing: Onward and Upward

All the Best,


Be Sociable, Share!

38 Responses to “Building Community: one grocery trip at a time”

  • Andrew Jones says:

    Setting up a normal routine and repeating it every week seems like a very successful way to teach Aaron. Familiarization of the store is also a big help. That is why the Kroger’s, Walmart’s, and other grocery stores tend to have the same setup so all of their customers know exactly where to go if they go to a different branch of the store. It’s great that you guys overcame the challenge of a large crowd in a different store setup. It is also remarkable that Aaron came up with a different way to get attention since he recognized his friend Todd.

    Great story!!

    • Mary says:

      Meeting Todd was one of those once-in-a-lifetime events that proved Aaron could impact other people. Now, we just need more Todd’s. 🙂

  • Annie Helffrich says:

    I really enjoyed this article. I thought it was great that you found a routine that Aaron that he could easily do. The story about the guy recognizing him was great! He seemed to really care for and understand Aaron. It was very clever for him to find a way to communicate the bets that he can. Everyone that has interacted with Aaron seems to really like him. It just shows that people can’t judge someone by just looking at them. One day I hope everyone can use inclusion in there everyday life!

  • Nuriya Gavin says:

    My brother also has had many experiences like this! We will be out and about then all of a sudden somebody will call put his name saying they either taught him, were an old classmate or camp friend. He also runs up to familiar faces and greets them with big hug (even if they are not all that familiar!). It’s a small world!

    *My brother has also formed community bond at the many grocery stores we frequent (he’s hard to forget!) but especially the Harris Teeter that has partnered with his school were the special needs students practice their independent living skills — taking the metro to buy grocery for a specific recipe and checking out.

    • Mary says:

      Very cool. Sounds like he is in a good school program. Going to the grocery in the community and getting to know people is what it is all about. Good for him.

  • Molly Keane says:

    I found this article so uplifting. I think that Aaron mastering the skill of pushing the grocery cart is quite amazing. I love reading your articles about him; he always seems to be full of surprises. I found it really neat that the owner of the car was Aarons classmate and he took the time to introduce Aaron to his children.

    • Mary E. Ulrich says:

      I am proud of Aaron and thanks for understanding how such a little thing as pushing the grocery cart is a BIG DEAL for us.

  • Tyler Deye says:

    I thought that this little story was really interesting. I thought that your technique of using a routine when shopping so that Aaron can know where everything is and remember his surroundings was really cool. Also I thought it was very interesting that you could teach Aaron to push the cart behind you and stop when you stopped. I’m sure he felt very accomplished about himself being able to push the cart around the store with his mother! Another thing that intrigued me was the fact that Todd recognized Aaron after all that time and allowed Aaron to high-five his children, this just really shows how much someone can impact another person.
    Tyler Deye recently posted..Autism Awareness Day| Direct Action is Better

    • mary says:

      That was a GREAT day. I often wonder where Todd is today. I don’t even know his last name and yet, every time I think of that, I just get goose bumps.

  • Kendall Collins says:

    Reading this story made me smile. Knowing Aaron has mastered a skill like pushing the grocery cart is simply amazing. I was amazed to find out that the owner of the car Aaron was pounding on happened to be his classmate, and the pounding was a unique way to get his attention. I love that the classmate recognized Aaron and introduced him to his children. Aaron seems to always be full of wonderful surprises

    • Mary says:

      You got it exactly right Kendall. Aaron is always full of surprises. That is one of Aaron’s greatest gifts–he gets us to see the little things that we might otherwise overlook. Thanks. M.

  • Morgan Johnson says:

    I think this is really cool. I love hearing about the stories about Aaron and his improvement. It is really encouraging to see. The guy that he saw at the grocery school handled the situation really well. I like that he introduced Aaron to his kids. They must of had a cool connection. I remember when I was a freshman in high school there was a guy in my gym class who was in a wheel chair and had a mental disability and I would always volunteer to take him around when we would move different places. Still today I see Jordan around places and I love saying hi to him. This reminded me of Jordan. I’m glad Aaron had that at Aaron had that at his school as well.

    • mary says:

      What a great story Morgan. I wonder if you know how much you must have meant to Jordon. I’ll bet you were a very important person in his life. The success of inclusion is that you see him in your community. This is what we all hope for.

  • Justin Lange says:

    It is great how something such as simple as going to the grocery store can be a great adventure and lead to great things for yourself, and others. Aaron seems like a well mannered kid that is great for others to be around. It seems like he can really make others happy just by his presence. it is so great that he can have this huge of an impact. The man went from extremely angry to extremely happy in a blink of an eye, there is not a lot of people who are able to have that impact on others, but Aaron is one of those people that can bring happiness and joy to others..

    • Mary says:

      Aaron does give joy and love. I’m smiling just thinking of him. Bet your mom feels the same way–it just can’t be described. But when someone else sees Aaron’s gifts–wow–that is just amazing.

      Did you see the Canadian skier last night? His brother’s joy. I think the whole world shared that blessed moment. That Olympic moment–better than any gold medal.

  • Leah Brubaker (student) says:

    I love this story. It is definitely my favorite! You can tell that Aaron had a positive impact on the lives that he went to high school with especially with the way Todd had remembered him. I wish that we were able to meet Aaron. He seems so sweet and very clever like you said. It is interesting the way people are able to find ways to communicate with others when they may lack being able to speak well (Aaron’s banging on the car). I also loved how Aaron interacted with Todd’s children, you could tell he was pleased to say hello and meet them. Reading this truly did put a smile on my face and warmed my heart.

    • mary says:

      It’s one of my favorite stories too. Thanks Leah. Just goes to show how we really don’t know how a kind deed is remembered–even if you can’t say a verbal “thank you”.

  • Kailey Longpre says:

    It’s obvious that people love and accept Aaron just the way he is. His classmate, Todd, seemed like he really cared about Aaron and was genuinely happy to see him. I hope that Aaron continues to be included and accepted for who he is. Keep working hard towards inclusion because it is a goal that can be achieved. I used to work with a woman with Down syndrome at a retail store, and she was loved and accepted by myself and all of our coworkers! She was a true success story of inclusion and I will never forget her.

    • Mary E. Ulrich says:

      How marvelous that you got to know your co-worker. I’ll bet you were an important part of her life. Things are changing, we can only hope the inclusion movement keeps gaining steam.

  • Wow! That was very smart of Aaron to pound on the car like that to get attention. It is great to hear that there are people out there like Todd who do not respond in negative ways. I thought it was very nice of Todd to introduce Aaron to his children.

    • Mary E. Ulrich says:

      All these years later, it still brings a smile to my face. I hope Todd and his children grow up in an inclusive world and feel the love.

  • Abby Awad says:

    Sorry to have traveled so far back in the blog to leave a comment, but I couldn’t pass this story up. Though I have very limited contact with people with disabilities, a friend of mine often shares stories of her autistic younger brother and how important it is to her that he makes connections to and becomes involved with his peers. I had not previously realized how important those connections must be to her brother as well, but this story really opened my eyes to that. How touching it must have been for you to witness a moment facilitated by the inclusion your son experienced while in high school, while at the same time, how important it must have felt for your son to be able to reconnect with an old friend, if only for a short time. This story will be one I won’t soon forget!

    • Mary E. Ulrich says:

      Abby, you must have a great heart to understand how important it is to be connected, even if it is just a moment in the grocery. We never know how we touch another person’s life. We never know the little things can make such a difference. Glad you liked this story and I hope you have similar stories in your life.

  • Shannon Cochran says:

    This story really shows how everyone is caught hustling through a grocery store, but we don’t realize the effect of our anxiousness has on others. It reminds me of a book I read called “Step Back from the Baggage Claim”. It discussed how travelers always seem to be in a hurry but a majority of the time are just stressed and want to leave as quickly as possible. This travel scenario was an anecdote for how everyone just needs to take a step back and realize how we run our lives. Aaron’s story here ties into that because it seemed very stressful for you and him during this trip to the grocery store and if everyone was a bit more considerate it could have made for a much better trip.

  • Oh, really nice story indeed. I’m on the febkids mailing list (moms of kids who were born in feb of 96 – been going on now for 15 years!); we have several autistic kids and that either that, or sensory overload, was the reason for Aaron’s actions. So cool that Aaron’s friend reacted the right way!
    Barbara Ling, Virtual Coach recently posted..Brilliant Way To Wow First Time Commenters and it’s free- too!

    • Mary E. Ulrich says:

      Thanks and Welcome Barbara. It’s an honor to have you here. 15 years is a long time for febkids to be together, you must have committed members. I’m hoping to build a similar community–all advice welcome.

  • Great story and what a great guy. I have a similar story involving cars and dependent children but mine didn’t turn out as well as yours. I can only imagine how you felt though when Todd yelled at you.
    Alison Golden recently posted..What Lady Gaga Taught Me About Innocence

    • Mary E. Ulrich says:

      Thanks Alison. Cars and dependent children? Sounds interesting.

      I try to forget the bad experiences. Well, at least try. But this one was GRAND!

      Next time we go to the grocery, I’ll try and get a real picture of Aaron to show him off. The stock photo is just a filler.

  • Marti Otten says:

    Miracles happen everday-everwhere-Aaron is our teacher…

  • Char Brandl says:

    Great story! I do happen to believe that everyone’s lives will be better because of inclusion — if we do things right. But I am heartbroken to think about the frustration Aaron and others like him must experience because they are unable to speak!
    Keep writing, Mary. We love your stories!

Leave a Reply

CommentLuv badge