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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  • autisticook

    This is brilliant! This could have been me! Well, except for the 7:30am part. I’m not alive at that time of day. Love how you describe the sensory involvement in soup cans and water bottle labels and the tiny tiny bottles of seasoning and spices which I love so so so much. And then the roundabout of chatter which is meant in a nice way but can also make you sort of feel like a pinball, getting shunted from weather smalltalk to weather smalltalk.

    • m kelter

      i always feel bad about the small talk…sometimes i get through it pretty well, other times i don’t, i feel kind of guilty when i potentially make someone else feel weird or awkward due to miscues on my part. it’s what i wish more people knew about ASD…even seeming simple conversations can be a minefield.

      yes, circumstances make early morning store runs the best time…unfortunately. i’m generally a nightowl, am not a big fan of the day prior to noon. zzz.

  • Elizabeth

    I agree, this is brilliant on many levels. A truly enjoyable read.

    • m kelter

      Thx Elizabeth, that is nice of you to say, thx for the comment.

  • Carol Morris

    So poignantly written…thank you for sharing. Funny and yet, not. Gives me more empathy for my son’s experience. I can see him making the “I wish I were somewhere else” face when strangers and semi-strangers try to keep him engaged in talk of any size.

    • m kelter

      Thx for the kind words, Carol. It’s true that even simple interactions can be pretty mentally exhausting, hope your son is finding ways to navigate them and not feel too overwhelmed. Thx again, Carol.

  • Petra

    Urgh, why do store people start random small talk with customers, anyway? I know it’s meant to be nice, but I think a lot of people, not just autistics, struggle with extracating themselves from these conversations. Suddenly it’s become YOUR responsibility to not be rude, while you were just minding your own busines to begin with.

    I just remembered, as I was reading this: my father used to have a Master Grocery List, with all the groceres we usually need. Every Monday (his day off), he’d check the pantry against this list and what we’d need and compile a list for this batch of grocery shopping. Now here’s the best part: the list was in the order of the shelves in the store! So as we walked our fixed route through the store, we would find everything that was on the list because it matched up. Until the store changed, of course.

    I didn’t realise until my own diagnosis how incredibly autistic my father is. Good systems :)

    • m kelter

      Wow, your father’s master list idea is really cool! Organizing it based on shelf location: genius. I definitely need something like that, I spend way more time in stores than I need to, just wandering about aimlessly. Your father had the right idea.

      • Janet Amorello

        How interesting. My mother always did her lists this way as well. She hated going to the market and was all about efficiency.

        • Anne Marie

          I make my lists that way and was going to suggest it. My lists always wind up with groups of items, with headers for the store names, and then the items in order by how I personally navigate the store. Then I go to the stores in ascending order of price (fortunately it’s also the most efficient order most days) and anything that doesn’t get crossed off from Store A gets moved to the list for the next best store for picking up that item. That screws up the order, but I’m not quite so OCD that I have to rewrite them. Most times.

  • Lettershead

    I just love this. I use a home base strategy, too (frozen foods – they go in the cart last because they melt) because I don’t want to have to look at the other people with carts and navigate around them – I only realized that I do this when I read your post. Sometimes I can do the small talk; other times I can’t – like some others in my family, I seem to float in and out of and up and down the spectrum. You seem to capture so much of it so well and so wittily. Thank you.

    • m kelter

      thx for the kind words…i like your “frozen food” edition of the home base strategy, very smart. i often forget that and wind up with unfrozen food.

  • Ysette Guevara

    Nice vivid snapshot, M!

    • m kelter

      Thanks! That means a lot coming from the inimitable Ysette…I hope everyone will check out your terrific blog, it’s a favorite.

  • Forgotten

    I am like Petra’s dad. I have my list organized by where in the store the products are. They recently rearranged a bunch of stuff. I spent about 3 hours trying to finish my grocery shopping the first day I went in after the changes. I went back before I left and walked up and down each aisle memorizing where everything was so that the next time I came shopping my list would match the order of the aisles from start to finish again.

    My fiance takes advantage of my photographic memory when he needs something because he can ask me where in the store it will be before he leaves and then he’s in and out quickly and it makes it easier on all of us!

    I also know visually where everything in my cabinets is and if I forget to put something on my list I will mentally “walk through my house” to figure out what it is that I forgot. I have such a routine that I can follow it in my head each day and remember what it is that was missing from my routine pretty easily. :)

    This was a great article and it made me think of so much stuff that I do myself that others might not realize that I even do. haha

    • m kelter

      nice, a photographic memory definitely sounds like a very helpful thing for these situations, i like your style.

      “it made me think of so much stuff that I do myself that others might not realize that I even do.”

      yes, it really is amazing to me how many aspects of the spectrum are invisible. things other never have to think about can, for autistics, require lots of forethought and planning. it can be exhausting, but it can also require a lot of creativity, so it can even be a little fun sometimes, puzzle solving how to navigate different situations. thx for the comment!