The Pancake Situation: eye contact and the autism spectrum

7:30a.m., this morning…

I walk into the grocery store. I immediately forget why I’m there. I look around, confused. I check my pockets…and find a list. Relief.

During trips to the grocery store, I always have trouble organizing in my head the most efficient route for procuring the items I need. I tend to wander about somewhat aimlessly, grabbing items once I realize I need them…it’s a slow, meandering process. And it can get tiresome, having to push a cart through the peripatetic circuit that I travel.

Here’s the method I’ve developed for dealing with this issue:

I don’t take the cart everywhere with me. Since I’ll be drifting and winding around a lot of aisles, what I do is, I pick a central location in the store…I park the cart in that central location (it’s usually around the potato chip aisle). I then walk around, gathering items until my arms are full; once that happens, I drop the items off at the cart (home base) and then continue walking around, picking things out.

Not going to win any efficiency awards, but it works. I get through cropped

This morning: I park the cart in its usual spot (the potato chip aisle), and start making the rounds.

I don’t need soup, but I go to the soup aisle anyway. I like seeing the colors and shapes of the cans.

I pass an unbelievably dense wall of flavored water. It’s perfectly organized; no spaces; labels facing out. I stare.

I pick up tiny bottles of seasoning, shake them, listen to the sound. Coriander is my favorite. Every now and then, I remember to look at the list; I backtrack, look around, nab boxes and cartons.

Breakfast aisle. I forget what I need. The list doesn’t tell me. I look around. An employee stocking a shelf pauses, stands up and says, “Can I help you find anything?”

“No, thank you,” I reply.

They smile, nod. I do the same. They ask, “Can you believe this weather?”

I start accessing small talk files. It takes a few moments. I finally say, “Crazy.”

They laugh, say, “Hot, cold, hot, cold. Sometimes in the same day.”

I nod. The employee reels off weather-related topics…patterns, predictions, impacts on travel plans. I continue to listen, nod.

Then something odd begins to happen. The employee looks at me…then looks off to the side…then they look back at me…then off to the side again. They have a puzzled expression on their face.

It takes me a few moments to realize what is happening: the employee is looking off to the side in an effort to follow my gaze. They’re trying to figure out what I’m looking at so intently.

And the truth is: I’m not looking at anything. I can just forget to make eye contact. It’s not that I find it to be uncomfortable or intense…it just rarely occurs to me to make it.

The employee never pauses the conversation…they just continue speaking, all while trying to figure out what I’m looking at.

It’s only then that I consciously make note of where my eyes are directed: at a display of pancake batter.

It’s disconcerting. Store employee…me…chatting about nothing. The two of us staring at pancake batter. Both confused. I had been listening, then on auto-pilot, then contemplating the nuances of eye contact, all while feeling guilty about creating awkwardness with this perfectly nice employee. It’s too much.

I begin to seek a graceful exit to the conversation. I can’t find one. The employee chats away.

I open my mouth…close it. I finally interject, “Yup!”

The employee stops talking..stares. I turn around and slowly walk away, feeling the guilt increase exponentially.

I find the cart (home base), decide the other items on the list are optional; I’ll get them another day.

I take my time heading to the check out counter, so that I can steep in the jumble of colors and shapes.

If I go slow enough, it feels like the store is moving, instead of me; impressions drift past my stationary mind.

Boxes and bar codes.

People and light.

These thoughts are interrupted by the cashier, who asks, “Can you believe this weather?”

Previous autism spectrum stories featuring social encounters: a funny little kid at this same grocery store; I mimic my way through a discussion about sports; my parents visit, insist I buy a lamp; awkwarness ensues. You can also find more Strings on Twitter and Facebook.
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