I was a Special Education teacher for the majority of my career, spending my last 4 years in a high school life skills classroom, which included students 14-22 years of age who had moderate to severe disabilities. One of the purposes of the unit was to prepare my students to function in the community. This includes using public transportation, eating in a restaurant, and making purchases. It is this last choice that we are going to talk about today.
In the student’s IEP, the goal may read “_______ will purchase an item in a store with no more than 2 verbal or visual prompts 85% of the time.” Following the goal are objectives: what has to happen in order to master the goal. Obviously, students must choose an item, hand the cashier enough money, wait for their change. All there is to it, right? Um, NO. Watch this: When I purchase an item, ALL the following things take place.
1. Select the item
2. Get in line.
3. Wait your turn.
4. Greet the cashier when it’s your turn.
5. Put your item(s) on the counter.
6. Listen for your total.
7. Hand the cashier the appropriate amount of money.
8. Wait for the cashier to hand you your change, your receipt and your purchase.
9. Thank the cashier.
10. Get out of the way.
11. Put away your change and receipt.
Who knew? This process, which seems so routine for most of us, is fraught with land mines for our ADHD kids, our kids on the spectrum, our sensory processing disorder kids… Think about how you feel when the store is too hot, the line is too long, the guy ahead of you is making you batshit crazy. Times that by 1000. That’s our kids. Look at all the skills we apply. Turn taking. Greeting appropriately. Communication. Math skills. Decision making skills. Every single step listed has to be pretaught, and mastered, in order for a successful experience. Yes, our kids have watched us buy stuff. For most kids, that’s enough. I never had to formally teach Shawn to buy stuff. But Ryan…let me tell you about Friday. Because even when you think its OK, you should expect the unexpected.
We stopped at the Valero for gas. Approximately 0.5 seconds after I paid for the gas, Ryan says “I want apple juice.” I looked around the store. It was empty. The cashier was friendly. I had a couple dollar bills in my purse. We’ve been working on parts of this. Let ‘er rip, I thought. It’ll be fine, I thought. So I said “OK, Ryan, go get an apple juice.” I watched, he returned with apple juice. #1 – 100% today. I handed him $2, and said “go get in line”. I moved off to the side to watch. He went to the cashier. #2 – 100%. The house is rocking, right? Well, no. Because then it broke down, and guess what, it’s my fault. I made an assumption. The cashier asked him for the juice. Radio silence. Ryan just looked at her. She tried again, reached her hand out ( perfect visual prompt). He gave her the money. She asked again for the juice, at which time I verbally prompted: “Ryan. Give her the juice.” He did, but why was this a problem? Well, we do a lot of our practice in the Bistro at Children’s. In the Bistro at Children’s, they don’t scan the items. Ryan never has to let go of his juice. What about the grocery store? Well, we have a cart. Item goes from hand to cart, THEN to cashier. It’s not in his hands at the register. Small detail, but important distinction.
So now the cashier’s got the juice, she’s got the money. I stand down a bit. And then it happens. I hear her say “Is that all for you today?” I register it a second too late. Ryan’s eyes flash around the store and land on the bin of basketballs. And he says “No. Wait. I need a ball.” And he’s off. And I’m off. I’m closer, so I get between him and the basketballs. Blessedly the store is still empty, so I can take the time to explain to him that he only has $2, we aren’t buying basketballs because he has 3, go back and get the juice. He doesn’t move. I give a choice…you can go back and get the juice or we can leave without it. But he’s gearing up for battle. I’m down at eye level, because WE ARE NOT GOING TO HAVE A MELTDOWN IN THIS STORE RIGHT NOW, RYAN!! I’m looking for compliance: “Ryan, answer me. Do you want your juice?” “YES”. Now a short, clear command: “Go get your juice”. Nothing happens. I hold my line, my breath, my position. Absolutely silent. After 10 seconds or so, which he needed to process, he returns to the counter for his juice. I follow, now I’m in his space, because we aren’t starting over. The cashier hands him his juice, tries to give him his change, but he’s not paying attention, and now it’s on the floor, and customers are coming in. Usually I have him pick up what he drops, particularly coins, because hey, good fine motor activity. But he needs big praise for compliance, and he needs it RIGHT NOW, so I pick up the change, thank the cashier, and walk out telling him what a great job he did picking his juice, thanked him for making a good choice, high five him, put his dimes in his pocket to put in his Batman bank later.
The cashier stayed in her routine, which is important. Ryan answered the question with a perfectly appropriate answer, unlike at church when Daniel asks for joys and concerns and Ryan raises his hand and asks to pray for Rice Krispies. The cashier doesn’t need to treat him differently. They don’t need to be friends at the end. She did exactly right. Me, an expert in task analysis, I missed a couple land mines. So we will practice a little more and then we will try it again.
It’s never “just” anything in our world. What a lot of folks take for granted is a huge undertaking for us. And for our kids. I almost drove off without the gas (which I have been known to do with fewer distractions than I had today). We avoided a meltdown, barely. I gave it a 50% mastery in the end, given that the last part completely unraveled.
Be patient with each other, y’all, and be kind. You just don’t know what each other’s lives look like.