Girls love shopping. It is an almost undeniable association. It is stereotyped in movies, on television, and often in everyday life. I think one of the first indications I had that I wasn’t like the other girls in my middle school was my hatred for shopping, malls, clothes, and anything else that was associated with the shopping experience. It did and still does trigger almost every single sensory trigger I have not to mention causes a lot of unnecessary stress and anxiety. The difference is now I understand why it bothers me, and I can prepare myself when I inevitably have to make a trip to the store.
I don’t pretend that I wasn’t a complete terror to my mom when she took me shopping before I graduated high school. There was not a fiber in my body that wanted to be there, and it didn’t help matters that I didn’t know or understand what was causing all my sensory issues and anxiety. It helps me now to know how Asperger’s Syndrome affects me, but it doesn’t change the fact that I struggle with this seemingly mundane task. A typical trip to the mall used to go something like this:
We walked through the door and into the bowels of a department store. Clothing racks were everywhere and made my chest tight with anxiety as it shrank the room smaller and made it overwhelming to look at. Colors, textures, and people were everywhere as if I was tumbling inside a dryer and couldn’t get enough air. The loud-speaker blared awful music which was periodically interrupted by a female voice screaming for someone to assist her at the front checkout. We waded through the clothes to find one particular item, but as the fabrics scratched and pulled and scrapped along my skin I had completely forgotten what it was we were looking for. The clothes don’t smell like home. They smell like cleaning chemicals, starch, and new cloth. It smells strange and unknown– not safe. The floors smell like musty basement walls with unidentifiable stains and holes worn through to the concrete underneath. We pass by a make-up counter and the overwhelming floral, sweet, and fruity smells all hit me at once and burn in my nose like a perfume tear gas. Someone gets too close to the sensor near the door with a magnetic tag, and the alarm sounds like nails on a chalk board. I cover my ears and try to keep my feet from running away. No one else seems to notice how loud it is, how many smells are clouding the air, or how the clothes are trying to peel off my skin like the twisting, clawing vines with thorns that grow into thick masses on the forest floor. How does anyone do this? I ask myself the same thing each time I am in a store as I get bombarded with more sensory triggers.
I have no idea how fashion works or what it is essentially. My clothes are determined by fabric texture, size, comfort, and extras. It has to be baggy, soft, comfortable for all day wear, and absolutely must not have any frills, lace, or tags. Women’s clothes are almost impossible to shop for. They are all too complicated with several textures (none of which I like), they fit small or hang weird on me, and they almost always have the worst tags. I am also not anywhere near a size 0 so as if it wasn’t already impossible it is now hopelessly impossible to find clothes. One day just out of curiosity I wandered into the men’s department. It was like I had fallen into an alternate dimension. The department was almost empty of people, the smells weren’t great, but the men’s scents are tame compared to the bright flowery poison of the female perfumes. The clothes were plain, soft, and void of all those evil frilly things, and there were tag-less options. They were loose-fitting, had plenty of length, and often there were colors and options that would pass for being somewhat feminine. Is it any wonder then that most women with Asperger’s tend to be more tomboyish and androgynous than typical women? It isn’t because we are any less feminine necessarily or that we would never have an interest in women’s clothing design. We simply can’t wear the clothes because our bodies are hypersensitive to how they feel. We might not like perfumes because the smell is overwhelming or make-up because of the way it feels on our face. It has become a big enough issue that there are now some Autism-friendly clothing lines being started, however, they are almost all exclusively for kids. I hope one day to find an adult Aspie clothing line that caters to people who need certain styles, fabrics, and textures, but I will, for now anyway, stick to finding whatever I can that works for me even if it breaks some of the neurotypical social rules.
I used to have a meltdown in the store when I went– crying silently in the dressing room surrounded by itchy jeans and piles of shirts that had no place in my closet. If I wasn’t walking on my mom’s heels because I was following her so closely, I was clinging to her and silently pleading for her to take me home. She would wander the aisles looking for something that caught her eye, but I was only trying to find the exit or avoid the perfume counter. How can you shop when you are terrified? As I got older and had been exposed over time to this type of sensory overload I began to identify which stores I absolutely couldn’t go in and which ones were just uncomfortable. I began to sit on the bench outside the store rather than being dragged around through it like a ball and chain. I started getting proactive and smarter about how I did my shopping. If I could buy it online I would instead of trying to hunt it down in the store. I would find smaller stores that had the things I needed rather than large chain stores that were trying to pack in everything from groceries to lawn care within their four walls. If I found a store I really liked then I would go back to that specific store because I could memorize the layout and knew where each item was. (Not all Kroger’s were built alike.) I still struggle with clothes and finding things I like that don’t trigger my tactile hypersensitivity, but I know now that if I find something I like I buy several and try to stick to those brands. If I buy something I can’t stand I return it or donate it. There isn’t a mathematical formula unfortunately for overcoming a phobia of shopping and malls, but there might be something scientific to it. The best advice I can give is to know your own limits and do what you can to slowly push the boundaries on those limits. Try going to the store with a friend who won’t rush you and understands your AS. Try going down one or two aisles near the door first then slowly add aisles as you get more comfortable. Make lists of items you need so you don’t get overwhelmed by all the things you don’t need, and remember that there are usually other shopping options besides the traditional grocery store. Modern technology has made online shopping super simple and even offers alternative traditional shopping like curbside pick-up or delivery. Don’t be afraid to try these other options to make your life easier. Who knows, maybe shopping isn’t so bad after all… maybe.