I was in the cereal aisle in Target, waiting for The Scientist to decide on his cereal purchase, when I overheard this exchange between a mother and her preteen son:
Mother: “James, come and let’s pick out some cereal.”
James (appears from around the corner): “But I haven’t finished looking at all the pasta. I looked at the pasta on the right but I didn’t look at the pasta on the left.”
Mother: “We need to pick out your cereal.”
James (sounding panicked, voice rapidly rising into hysteria): “But I need to look at all the pasta! I haven’t looked at the pasta on the left. I need–“
Mother: “Okay, you can finish looking at the pasta if you promise to come right back here when you’re done and pick out your cereal.”
James: “I promise.” (dashes off around the corner then returns a minute later)
Mother: “Are you done?”
James: (looking happy) “Uh-huh.”
If you’re autistic or you have an autistic child, I bet you know why this conversation made me smile.
James’s mother didn’t say, “You don’t need to look at all the pasta.”
She didn’t say, “That’s ridiculous.”
Or, “You can look at the pasta later (or next time).”
Or, “Stop whining or we’re leaving.”
Or, “Grow up and act your age.” (James was around 10 or 11, I think.)
Or, “Get over here and pick out a box of cereal or I’m taking away your video games for the rest of the day.”
Though she may not understand why James needs to look at all of the pasta when he visits Target, she recognized that preventing him from doing it would result in a meltdown in aisle 13.
And look at the results: The situation was rapidly de-escalated. James was happy. He came back and picked out his cereal as promised, without any prompting. His mother had to wait for him, but an extra minute standing in the cereal aisle beats the hell out of trying to calm a kid having a meltdown in the cereal aisle.
Meet Us Where We Are
There is a lot of talk about how autistic kids (and adults) need to learn flexibility. We’re too rigid, have too many nonfunctional routines. There are elaborate systems for teaching flexible thinking (which is important, I get that). But maybe non-autistic people need to be more flexible, too.
For kids like James, Target is stressful. The noise, the lights, the people, the smells–any or all of these can be overwhelming to autistic individuals. (And yes, based on what I saw I’m assuming–perhaps wrongly, but I doubt it–that he’s on the spectrum.)
If looking at the pasta makes a kid feel better, is that a big deal?
For some parents it might be. Let’s face it–a kid who needs to not only look at the pasta, but to be sure he’s looked at all of it? A little weird. But so what? We all have our coping mechanisms and James has found a way to cope with the stress of Target.
And his mother, bless her, she seemed to get this. She doesn’t look concerned about people judging her for letting her son “have his way.” She doesn’t belittle or shame him for what is, in his mind, a very real need. She doesn’t complain that he’s wasting their time or being uncooperative.
Her response left me wondering how long it took them to get to this point. Because not only did James interrupt his study of the pasta aisle to come when she called him, he returned the second time and picked out his cereal without being prompted. For a kid with such an intense need to study the pasta aisle, this is huge. Huge.
In this one small exchange, he’s learning how to negotiate, how to compromise, how to satisfy his needs while being conscious of his responsibilities, how to keep a promise, how to regulate anxiety and/or sensory overload using coping mechanisms.
Yes, autistics can be rigid. Yes, we have some odd routines or habits. Sometimes this has to be addressed. If James needed to spend an hour studying the pasta aisle, then yeah, big problem.
But a few minutes in the pasta aisle, accepting that the pasta on the left is important, even critical, to this particular kid–that doesn’t have to be a problem at all.
When you have an autistic family member or friend, you’re going to run into situations that you find hard to understand. There will be times when we’re not where you think we should be or where you wish we were.
When this happens, try practicing a little flexibility. Meet us where we are. You might be surprised at the results.