Friday, July 23, 2010

Day 20: A Terrorizing Experience at the Grocery Store

(For the previous 17 days I have been wearing nothing but sunglasses. With the sunglasses eye contact and social situations were easier. Today I went back to normal glasses and this is that story.)

I just got back from Schunucks (a local grocery chain) and my heart is still beating fast. I am breathing fast and feel 100% drained of energy. I feel nothing short of abysmal. Did something bad happen? Well, depends on how you define bad.

Today is another day I am going without the sunglasses and I went to the grocery store to get my morning carrots and some soda. Because of the soda I was getting I needed a cart so I got one and instantly from the cart corral I felt different.

I had to pass three other shoppers to get my cart and I was looking down. One person said hello, but because I wasn't looking at them I don't know if this was directed at me. The onslaught of anxiety filled instances was just beginning.

From the corral I slowly walked to the carrots but I took another path because I wanted some Seneca Foods Apple Chips (my favorite snack! I have 7 bags stockpiled in my desk, but I'm not in the office today) but could not find any at this location. As I came to that conclusion a worker walked past the intersection and I made the mistake of making brief eye contact. He then said something, but my mind was analyzing the eye contact so I didn't hear him.

A second or two later I was still caught up thinking about what the man said that I did not see the other worker following behind the original one. I came within a few inches of pushing my cart right into him. He too said something, but by this point in time my mind was not receiving any external input. I was scared and had to much to process.

Quickly I got my soda, put into the cart, and walked with a brisk pace to the checkout. It was decision time. I normally use the self checkout, but the machines always yell at me to put the soda in the bag, and I had three 12 packs. Because of this I went with the traditional method of checkout.

As I wheeled the cart into the lane the worker lady was standing in the checkout aisle. She looked at me and instantly said, "You're going to have to go back!" What?! I froze. What did I do wrong? I looked at the checkout light and it was on so why was I being yelled at?

Every possible emotion related to fear was experienced. Tenths of a second seemed to go by at a pace a snail would find slow. Truly, I wanted to be anywhere but there. I didn't know what was going on or why I was in trouble, or if I was in trouble at all.

Because I was not looking at the person I only had the words and tone to go by. As a few seconds passed the lady who told me I was going to need to turn around asked another worker, "Hey, is it Pepsi or Dr. Pepper that has a buy 3 get 1 free coupon? Sir, if it is Pepsi you can turn around to get another."

I was confused. I heard the words but they didn't make sense. I was so scared and frightened that nothing was really being understood.

She finally got behind the counter and I, hesitantly, put the soda and carrots on the checkout counter. I did this slowly because I still was trying to think of what I had done wrong. My only thoughts as my knees went weak with anxiety was that I want to be home. The soda rolled down the conveyor belt slowly, and instead of just checking out and being done with it the lady asked the other worker what deals Pepsi had going on. The man looked through the coupons and found one. He gave it to the lady and she said, "Sir, you can go get a bag of Tostitos with this buy 3 get 1 bag of chips free coupon."

I was still dazed and I looked over my shoulder to see where the chips may be. "Aisle 2" I thought to myself, but that was a good 10 second walk. I was paralyzed with fear and did not want to walk. I think the man offered to go get them, but my only want and need was to leave that place of fear. I had to leave, needed to leave, and finally I was able to.

What can be learned from this? I feel all this was triggered by the initial eye contact issues at the cart corral. If there is a stumbling block in any social situation I do the events following that are always harder. I then go into a subconscious state processing and if something happens in this phase the hole gets deeper. By the time I got to the checkout counter I was frazzled. I think if I could have looked at her face when she said that, "I would have to go back" I may have realized it wasn't an actual crisis as I took it.

What I have learned from this is I can't wait to be behind the sunglasses again. The event today that I described as always happened to me, but I don't think with that many events in such a short time span. Can the sunglasses perhaps minimize these? I think so, and again, I can't wait to go back!


  1. It's a fascinating description, Aaron, my brother. My symptoms are probably lighter than yours, but everything you describe rings true.
    I'm 57 years old and had to live with AS long before anyone what it was. I created a method that seems to be more or less what you are trying to do.
    It's hard and every new step is painful. But every step, once crossed, is acquired. It is less and less painful until it becomes automatic.
    It is long and requires much more mental work than anyone can imagine.
    Now, I can shake hands like a used car salesman, maintain eye contact with everyone, including people I don't like (but I prefer not to do it), and I love to keep eye contact with the people I like (especially women).
    I promise you two bonuses, like the supermarket:
    Bonus #1: It's progressive. You acquire the first simple but painful steps and then you own them. Then you proceed to next step.
    In a crisis things learned may become unlearned, but that's temporary.
    Bonus #2: You will learn far more about how humans work than NTs, because you have to understand it and they don't. Your ally: study anthropology.
    I wish you the best.

  2. "Study anthropology" - Care to explain? That's a bit cryptic.

  3. Aaron, I don't know if this would help or not, but I get the impression that you think there is more going on in other's minds that just isnt' there. Just because some of us have a flood of information barraging our mind doesn't mean anyone else does...'cause they don't. They might be saying "hello" to you, but they're really thinking about cleaning their house, their job, problems with their kids, etc. Honestly, 99% of people aren't really concerned with you or anyone else all that much...Try not to get worked up by what they might think, 'cause they're not going to.

  4. I agree with Brandon, Aaron. I think you are projecting some of your fear. You fear we (or the person/people you've come across during your day) are thinking about you when we're really only thinking about getting little Becky to dance recital and Matthew to ball practice, etc.

    I'd just meet your eyes, smile and offer to help if it looked like you needed something. I think most people would.

    Put your glasses back on so you can feel more at ease. Give it a bit more time.

  5. LiLMama2025@hotmail.comJuly 23, 2010 at 9:47 PM

    Hello Aaron,
    My Name is Stephanie. I am a 25 year old mother of five kids. My four year old son Miles has just got diagnosed with asperger's & OCD. I knew there was something special about him from about 6 months old..something was..different. I have been working with dr's trying to find out just what it is about miles that i couldnt put my finger on..and then just a few weeks ago we got a dr's comformation that he has asperger's and OCD. I am very interested to learn more about you and how you deal with it..i dont think he's at the point you are cuz he's young but he does have a hard time handling his emotions whne it comes to situations with other kids or his older and two youger brothers..can you email me sometime and give me a lil more idea of what its like with asperger's please

  6. Hi Aaron,
    I don't know much about you because I've only just read Blog #20 - busy reading other autobiographies on people with AS/ Autism but no doubt will read more of your blogs in the future. I can relate to that experience completely, it is not just the eye contact that affects my inability to decipher what is expected of me in similar situations but also auditory processing problems (which people on the spectrum often report). Hearing tests show no hearing loss but I experience hearing difficulty with regard to conversation. Words just jumble in busy, noisy places and I usually make out a word or too and my brain completes the sentence (not always correctly translated, or sometimes not at all). It is probably not just eye contact that makes these situations difficult for you. I also have practical problems (actually I am not sure where the following difficulties fit)for example: filling up our car with petrol is always wrought with complications- picking the best line to cue in, pull up on the wrong side, can't attach the 'tube' properly, machine out of order, forgot my coupon, get confused about discounts when addressed directly too me (I just say 'no thanks' regardless). I have the social paranoia/ anxiety because I stuff up so often and because I can't read facial expressions well I assume they think I'm an idiot and that must be why they are looking at me. It is hard being an Aspie you can't just wish it away with optimism. Anyway, keep writing and do what works best for you. I beg my husband to do the car petrol fill ups for me- he understands my problems and associated anxiety better now that I have a diagnosis (diagnosed just over a yr ago- after having concerns about my young son who has also recently received a diagnosis)Rachel

  7. Hi Aaron.
    I've been recently diagnosed with Asperger. I'm 34 years old, and I also have had so many troubles with eye contact and what people told me in the street. I've always thought that maybe I was an idiot or something like that, but reading what you write gives me an explanation of what I've always felt. I usually go to a supermarket with a friend and tell her to ask the employes what I need to know. If I go by myself I don't want to ask anybody anything because I think that they'd think that I'm stupid. It's really hard, but maybe I've got used to it.
    Sorry if I wrote something wrong, I'm from Mexico.

  8. Mara,

    There's nothing wrong with what you said. Thanks for sharing!

  9. Aaron, quick suggestion for the self-checkout lane, which I actually don't like BECAUSE there always seems to be a problem and then I'm just looking around waiting for someone to notice and come swipe their card to fix it.

    I use cloth bags when I shop, so I had to figure out how to bypass the machine telling you to put each item in the bag. I just put the bag over the weights where they have the plastic bags waiting, and then I fill it as I go. The weight is registered and the machine doesn't hound you. As for items that don't need to be bagged (cashiers, PLEASE stop bagging - or worse, double bagging - items that come with a handle!!!), like a gallon of milk or your case of soda, just place it on the weight without a bag. It gets registered, and then you can just remove it and put it in your cart. Hope that helps. :)

  10. If I shop for things by myself (and I did a few times for church)- I always have a mental check list on what I wanted to buy. Then, I will actively scan for the things I wanted to buy. If I have a hard time finding something, I already have a few questions handy and be ready to make eye contact with a worker. Finally, I will walk quickly to the checkout counter, pay for my stuff, and go.

    I know I might make it look super easy. So, I will break it down for you. I prepared myself about every possible thing I could think of may happen and how I would go about it when I was calm, which can be a few moments or the night before I wanted to go to the store. Then, you think of which way(s) work best from a social standpoint. Now, because I have successfully done it once (others might take a few times), I am not afraid any more.