Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Thinking Outside the Bun: My Trip to Taco Bell

Blogger's Note: I wrote this for my third book, but I couldn't sit on this chapter for that long and must share this with the world!

This entry is about all the thoughts that went through my head as I walked over to Taco Bell from my office today. I don't know what anyone else's experience is like when they go somewhere, but here is mine.

As I started to get hungry I watched the clock. I began to ponder if then was the right time to go, or if I should wait. I listened to the foot traffic in the halls and also for voices as I want to make sure I have the least bit chance of meeting someone in the halls. To walk by someone is a stressful situation. Will they say hello? Will they be in my way? If so, will I stand there awkwardly hoping I don't have to muster the ability to say, "Excuse me."?

I have turned my life into a never ending defense plan. If the hall has two people in it as I make my turn around the corner that leads to the exit I will return to my office. There is an exit to the rear that is closer and less crowded, but that's not the exit I use. The only time that exit comes into play is for a fire drill. I hate this rule that I have, but that's the rule. I know you are probably screaming at the monitor right now calling me stubborn, but I use the front exit and that's the way it has been since day one and, sadly, I'm rigid on this.

Today, the coast was clear and I made my break. In my mind I feel as if I am escaping a prison as I must be unseen and unheard (don't get me wrong, this analogy only represents my stealth-like ways leaving the building and does not mean my office is a prison). Any unforeseen conversation will cause duress for several minutes; even after the conversation is over. This is because afterwards I will be thinking about what I said compared to what I should have said. This game of reviewing conversational transcripts never ends.

I made it to the ground floor without being seen and nobody was in the lobby so I made the much coveted "clean break". Freedom only lasts so long as I must prepare for the parking lot.

The parking lot is a potential minefield. If someone pulls in an waives at me I am confused as to what to do. Are they waiving because they want to ask me something? Or is it just a common waive to say "hello"? If I don't acknowledge it I can say I didn't see them, but if I do acknowledge it and have no way to say that I didn't see them and I continue to walk I risk them getting angry with me that I didn't talk to them.

Today, thankfully, the parking lot minefield was navigated without incident. Now I had to cross the street which isn't a hazard because cars on the road don't care about pedestrians and the risk for a conversation is about as low as it gets. Or so I thought.

Today, a big Cadillac Escalade with huge chrome wheels and other costly upgrades started to slow as the driver looked my way. The panic buttons were going off in my mind as I was planning my escape should the driver have a gun. Could I escape? Was I about to be kidnapped? If so, what would I do and how would I cope. I held my breath.

Tenths of a second ticked by at a painfully slow pace as the driver stopped and the window came down. All the bones in my body were telling me to run away at a speed that an Olympian would be proud of. My mind wasn't listening as I was frozen much like a horse, ahem, I meant a deer in headlights. The driver then spoke and asked, "Do you know which way the probation office is?" I was unable to verbally respond as I was so frozen at this unexpected event that I was only able to make a face that resembled cluelessness and shrugged my shoulders in a way that sold the cluelessness. The driver said nothing and drove off. The unexpected crisis was averted.

It was now time to cross the resale shop parking lot and this too is minimal risk territory as no one that parks there and walks into that store will think anything of me. Thankfully, today held true to that unlike crossing the street.

After crossing that parking lot I am at the Taco Bell. At this point in time I start to rehearse my order. If I don't do this my order won't be smooth and I may freeze. If I freeze I will get some odd looks and if I get odd looks I will panic and be pondering those looks for hours and then be afraid to go out for several days for fear of re-experiencing those looks.

I walked into the Taco Bell and was glad that no one was in line. Even though I could walk straight to the counter I must take the long way around the soda fountain and eating area to enter the ordering line properly. This has cost me many minutes as other people entering from the other side will beat me to the counter. Again, I enter the right way and can't compromise this.

Nobody got in front of me today and I approached the counter much like a hesitant boxer would enter the ring. This is the only socializing I can't avoid when I make my trek out of the office and I fear this moment for the entire day leading up to lunch.

"Yes, I would like a #7, steak, make the taco a volcano, and a caramel apple empanada." is what I said and always say. If I do this right I won't have to say a word more, but I spoke too fast today and the lady asked what number I wanted, and if I wanted chicken instead of steak, and then asked what sauce I wanted on the taco. A least I didn't need to repeat the empanada!

I took my cup to the soda fountain and began the awkward wait. There is no defined wait spot for one's order so I am never 100% sure where to stand. Today wasn't an issue because nobody else was there (thank goodness!). My number was called and I looked at my receipt to confirm and I grabbed my order and headed to the exit.

"Sir" I thought I heard someone say so I waited a brief second and the panic buttons were going off. Did I take someone else's order? How will I explain this? Will the police get involved? Is it even a crime to take the wrong order? I didn't hear any other words so I started walking again. "Sir!" I heard and I knew I didn't hear anything that wasn't there. I turned around and saw the food dispenser lady holding something. They had simply forgotten to put the empanada in the bag so again crisis had been averted. I was relieved as I now knew I would not be receiving a lengthy prison term for Grand Theft Taco.

The walk back is just as hazardous as now I am carrying food and people like to comment on other people's food choice. hey may ask what I ordered, or that they haven't ate at Taco Bell for years. Honestly, five times I've had people walking into the store between the office and Taco Bell comment that they haven't had Taco Bell in years.

Nobody harassed me today and I made it into the parking lot of the office and thankfully no one saw me so I got into the building without being seen. This is a hazardous time as well because now I am holding food which seems to be a conversational magnet, but having food is also a shield because I can walk with conviction to the break room.

Once in the break room I am fine if people talk to me because I am stationary and conversations in a break room are to be expected.

With lunch over I wait until I hear empty halls again and I make my stealthy trip back to my office.

It may be lunch for most people, but for me a trip to Taco Bell is as intense as a Hollywood thriller. Today I experienced the fear of kidnapping and the fear of being put away for Grand Theft Taco. What you read today was just 10 minutes of my life so imagine what the entire day is like for me! Why do I need to watch movies when Hollywood thriller's have trouble packing so much excitement in just a routine trek to a Taco Bell?


  1. This sounds pretty much like my day at school!
    But I have High-Functioning Autism!

  2. Taco Bell smells GROSS!

  3. I had been in situations like this a lot. My strategy is two fold-

    1. If I go to a public place that I know nobody or see nobody around, I just be in my own world unless the social situation drastically changes.

    2. If I am in a place where there is at least a chance I will bump into someone I know, I will prepare by having a general idea of who I might see and go from there.

    It's not an irrational fear for individuals with autism. But, it's a fear that you have to work with. If it's me giving suggestions, I will say start by walking with someone that you trust (ideally someone who has great social skills) and observe how he/she handle the situation. Then, after a while, you need to try your hand at addressing this fear. Now, I will give you a "successful" example.

    One day, as I was on my way to go to a classroom to deliver a guest lecture in a classroom about autism. I met someone whom I had a class with this semester at the parking lot. I forgot her name, but I remembered her face. I was wearing sunglasses at the time with my business professional clothes. In that situation, I could have walk by her and it would have been no big deal. (After all, we didn't know each other too well.) But, I took the plunge and said hi. Then, she asked me how did I remember her. So, I told her that we were in a class together not so long ago. After that, we began to have a conversation for 10-15 minutes and I maintained good eye contact throughout. (I didn't mind since I still had plenty of time.) Finally, when she said she had to go, we exchanged some pleasantries before we went our respective ways.

    Another example-

    I was in my department hallway on Thursday, as I got some things to prepare to go to a career fair. After I got my stuff, I came across someone who taught me last semester. This time, I kept my conversation short since I didn't eat lunch and that I had no idea where I would be going. The person understood that because I answered her what I would be up to soon. Yet, I still gave her some updates as to how I am doing. Unfortunately, one thing I didn't do was to ask some questions on how she is doing. That said, I didn't blame myself for it because I was in a hurry and I didn't realize that I was one-sided in my conversation. Had I had more time, I would have done that for sure! Fortunately, I made it up later in the day when I had a conversation with two people I had not met before at that career fair.

    All in all, it may sound hard. But, it's doable for individuals with autism. :) All you got to do is to mentally prepare yourself, even if you only have a few moments to do so. Also, if there are things that you are weak at, make sure you are mindful of them so that you can remember to do such things. For you "at this time" (since I read this almost 3 years later), you can start from saying hi to the person. Then, you can progress to a few sentences. Then, you can progress to a regular conversation.