Tuesday, December 7, 2010

"Are You Okay?"

Instead of boring you with another day of writing about sleep issues I will instead tell you about a common question I hear. I heard this question this morning and it always catches me off guard because I don't know how to respond to it, or when I do know how to respond to it my mind won't allow me to.

This morning I went to the grocery store to get my usual breakfast (a bag of carrots). I have become a professional at getting in and out of the store without being noticed, but this morning the automatic check out stations weren't opened yet so I had to go to an actual checkout station that was manned by a person.

Only one lane was open and there was a lady in front of me so I laid the carrots on the counter and waited. My mind was lost in thought as I began to piece together what I was going to write this morning.

A couple minutes passed and in was my turn to pay for my bag of carrots. Even at this point in time I was running on autopilot because I so concentrated on my blog post. I got my wallet out and made sure I kept Thomas Jefferson on tour (http://lifeontheothersideofthewall.blogspot.com/2010/06/on-tour-with-thomas-jefferson.html) so I used a $2 bill. This didn't phase the cashier lady and instead of a comment on my money usage I heard an all too familiar question, "Sir, are you okay this morning?"

I am a magnet to that question. I am sure I was 100% flat in terms of facial expression because of my concentration on my writings, but I also was tired, and rather cold. All of these elements led me to being flat in the face which obviously led this lady into thinking that something had to be wrong with me.

My cause wasn't helped when I barely acknowledged that she asked this. Checking out is always a difficult task for me (because of experiences like this) and I usually make no eye contact with the person that is working the check out. I remember today looking off in oblivion somewhere between the employee and the computer monitor that shows the price.

When she asked me this question I made no attempt to look at her and I honestly don't remember what response I gave her, exactly. I am almost confident I simply nodded my head because that was all my mind allowed me to do. This question always throws me off and when I am thinking about something else I can't simply jump from that to the question at hand.

The employee thought something was wrong though and I was asked the much dreaded follow-up question, "Are you sure?" After this I am truly screaming on the inside. How do I respond? I nodded yes and I answered your question once. Why must people ask a second time? I'm sure a normal person would have given an in-depth answer to quell any questions the employee had, but I don't fall under normal and have a real hard time dealing with such questions.

My change was given to me at a pace a snail would have sneered at because this lady thought something was wrong with me. She kept looking at me which I started this checkout process simply deep in thought, but now I was in panic mode. I just wanted to leave, but she slowly reached for the change and said, "Well, I guess some people are just quiet." If she only knew the truth and if she only knew the damage a comment like that has.

I'm used to that question because I usually have minimal to no expressions. This is somewhat common for those on the spectrum and many times this gets read as us being upset, ill, or mad. This isn't the case (of course sometimes it is) and to constantly bombard us with "Are you okay?" will eventually make us upset, ill, or mad.

This morning I wanted to say that I was on the autism spectrum after she made her comment that "some people are just quiet" but was unable. First and foremost autism is a communication issue and this morning I realized that it just isn't words, but even in our non-verbal communication we can emit wrong signals.

I had so much I wanted to say to that employee because this is a prime example of the difference between the autism spectrum and not. I had a chance to truly educate someone because I don't think she meant to harm me emotionally, but the words were left unsaid; after all, the autism spectrum is first and foremost a communication issue.


  1. Funny though... You were in line, trying to figure out what to put in your blog post. Then the thing that threw you off this trail of thought actually became your blog post. Funny how things work themselves out.

  2. If you visit the same grocery store often, perhaps you could do a lunch and learn there. Then your neighborhood cashiers would understand you and others much better and maybe knowing this you wouldn't find the task so difficult. Just a thought.

  3. Heh - and a friend and I just had a conversation yesterday about how to say "no" in neurotypical. It would seem "yes" is often a challenge as well. After many years I have learned to simply accept that I'll probably have to say it several times, in several different ways, before the literal meaning of the word gets through.

  4. I know this NEVER applied to me, perhaps because my mom has trained (though she never formally did) me well behaviorally and socially. But, I did hear a few OT friends of mine say that grocery stores can be quite sensory overwhelming for individuals with sensory issues. Hence, it is possible that you often have an episode like you described in this and past blogs. For you, I also know the social anxiety is also another part of the equation.

    Putting my OT hat on, if I were to work with someone who has similar issues, I will focus on the sensory aspect first. It is HARD to be calm in the midst of a sensory overload episode to be able to do the right things. Once the sensory part of the problem is solved, then it will be the social part.