The Importance of the Pasta on the Left

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.”

The pasta aisle is a thing of beauty, with it's boxes and bags all lined up by color and size.
The pasta aisle is a thing of beauty, with its boxes and bags all lined up by color and size.

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.

49 thoughts on “The Importance of the Pasta on the Left”

  1. You explained this brilliantly. As an Aspie, I’ve yet to encounter anyone who doesn’t make a fuss about my “weird” needs/behaviours etc. If more people had this mother’s attitude then I’d start to have a better opinion of society. 🙂

      1. What I love, as a non-autistic mom but who is privileged to have an autistic daughter, is everything you said PLUS James’ ability to self-advocate. As my daughter grows older and she’s blossoming, she’s been learning to self-advocate and the ways that work best for her. Since she doesn’t speak much, I’ve realized quickly that if she’s talking about something then it’s important to her and more listening needs to occur, especially if I want her to listen in return.

        I often think, though, that we who are non-autistic can be just as “rigid” as autistic individuals are thought to be. It turns into a battle of wills or teaching moments.

        Sometimes… most times… it’s ok to just let those moments be. Need over want, and whatnot.

  2. Oh bravo! Bravo to this post! Bravo to James! And Bravo to James’ mother! This is such a wonderfully concise, like you couldn’t have planned it any better, example of how flexibility on BOTH sides is such a beautiful thing. And oh how I imagine everyone in that family is SO much happier since they learned flexibility. Now imagine everyone, everywhere, having this kind of flexibility. Imagine the problems that would just go away. Imagine how much smoother life would be if we were all just allowed a few extra minutes to browse the pasta aisle. Not to mention how pleased the Target team member who does the pasta display must be to think someone lingered in the aisle admiring their work! 🙂

    This post made me happy! Thank you.

    1. Your comment made me happy! 🙂

      One of the benefits of not being able to filter out background noise is that I find myself involuntarily eavesdropping on conversations like this. It was so cool to get a peek into this family’s life and see how well they were managing to negotiate their differing needs. I would very much like a world where we all got a few extra minutes in the pasta aisle, yes.

  3. It’s routine after a while. (For a mum of an Aspie: you know the needs, you meet the needs.) What about the kid who wants to straighten the pasta boxes? 🙂 Just phases really, and a part of going up too. I think you have incredible insight into this matter.

  4. Fantastic post! So many people won’t even attempt to meet us halfway… and then blame us for the resulting problems. It annoys me so much.

  5. As a mom to a little boy on the spectrum I needed this. Thank you for reminding me it is okay, even beneficial to meet him half way (or more than half way).

  6. I found this very interesting – as all your posts are – but it isn’t always so easy to be flexible. My daughter – must see if I can get her to follow your blog herself! – has a taxi come to get her for college each morning. I have to get up with her, even though she’ll be 18 this year, just to make sure she keeps focused on the fact that she has to leave at a certain time. When she’s finished getting dressed, having breakfast, etc, she disappears back into her room and I am pretty sure that she goes through some sort of ‘ritual’ before she leaves. This is fine but, if she hasn’t finished before the taxi arrives, I am pacing up and down chewing my nails, wincing as he sits out there honking his horn at 7 in the morning. I have to keep calling her and she gets annoyed with me so we nearly always start the day with a little conflict, which is a shame. I have explained that, if she needs to get something done before she leaves, she must factor the time it takes into the time she has available in the mornings and, if there isn’t enough time, she’ll have to get up earlier but that never happens. So, whilst I understand the need for flexibility, it isn’t always an option especially when other people are involved or there is a time factor.

    1. It’s definitely not easy and I think there are some areas that it’s more feasible to meet in the middle than others. Have you considered trying to work out a solution with your daughter that would give her more of the responsibility for being on time? Meeting in the middle requires both people to move toward the center, but it sounds like you’re shouldering a lot of the responsibility right now (which can often be necessary with aspies, I know). Perhaps an alarm or a timer or some sort of “neutral” reminder would be less stressful for both of you?

      I’m betting she finds getting reading for school anxiety-inducing and those last few minutes spent in her room might be a way of hiding out a bit more before having to face the world. I also have a feeling that no matter how much earlier she got up, she’d still be in her room right down to the wire. 🙂 I can imagine myself doing the same.

    2. You post is interesting. If I may subject you to why I think so…My Grandmother basically raised me. I behave very similarly to your daughter. I underwent extensive surgery and a year of rehab to walk properly again at age 34. Even my cat died. I moved home to my Gram to “reorder myself” (her words)-reestablish my career, rebuild my life. I was a very high achiever, lived alone in San Francisco….but my rituals had all fallen apart. Primarily getting up and getting out the door. Sounds so simple, but it’s not. Not for me. My Grandmother has a 2 hrs policy on mornings. Always be up 2 hours in advance. The lowering of stress about needing to hurry is worth trading sleep for. She was always up before me growing up. That was apparently so much of the reason I learned to get up and how to time my mornings that it worked again when I was an adult! 15 years after leaving home “ordered” I went home and “reordered” everything. I believe perhaps your daughter needs to ‘re envision morning management. Can she fit her vision of the perfect morning into time segments totaling 2 hours, I.e. up at 6:00, coffee until 6:15, shower until 6:30, etc.? I have clocks in every room and the bathroom clock is visible from the shower. Another Grandma method (she is very wise, my Gram). She inspired me that the victory wasn’t in the ritual, but successful management of the process. The one drawback is if wake up late, I am exactly that plus two hours late. Or I get there but I’m not going to have a supremely functional day. Good luck! She is trying. Or she wouldn’t be making it to the taxi… so keep being flexible. She’ll get it.

    3. Can you communicate with the taxi driver that it will be a few minutes, and then while you are waiting, maybe develop a calming, relaxing ritual of your own? I like progressive muscle relaxation, some people like autogenic training, or visualizing something like … colorful lights that are a color associated with peace, or imagining exploring a favorite place while listening to a favorite piece of music??

      Just an idea.

    4. My 16 year old Aspie has a series of about 10 alarms she has programmed into her cell phone each school morning, each one with a description of what she needs to be doing at that moment in order to get out the door on time. It’s very frustrating to my husband and I hear her alarm going off every 3-4 minutes, but it keeps her on-track and makes sure she doesn’t forget anything and gets her out to catch the bus on time.

      1. It’s great that she’s found something that works for her and she’s taken charge of her own executive function issues. Just keep reminding yourself that the alternative just might be you nagging her to get 10 different things done every morning so she could get out the door on time. 🙂

  7. I love your blog… and so does my 12 year old Aspie daughter. You explain things so well, and though she relates to some things a lot, and not as much to others (we’re all individuals no matter who we are!) your point of view really resonates with her. Up until this point (she doesn’t know many other Aspies – there aren’t a lot in our community) I’ve had to try to convince her that she’s not the only one like herself. You’ve done a far better job of that. For this, and so many other reasons, your blog is so important. So, thank you for taking the time to help me understand you and your world better, and making my daughter feel a little more understood. 🙂 Oh, and bravo to the mom in Target!!! And to young James and his pasta! Though it’s tough to keep the balance of flexibility (whose turn is it to be flexible and why, and how far do each of us need to bend) I so agree that sometimes a little understanding and compromise can go a very long way.

    1. Thank you! I’m really touched that you and your daughter are reading together. I think it’s quite normal for us aspies to each have our own unique set of traits. As someone who grew up undiagnosed (and is old!) I probably have some additional baggage, too. 😀

      Your daughter is very much not alone. I’m so very glad she knows that. When I was first diagnosed, I felt really alone too. But I’ve found many many other female aspies since discovering the ASD blogging community. We come from all walks of life – the possibilities are limitless.

      The issue of flexibility and meeting in the middle seems to continue into adulthood. It’s something I think about a lot – how much do I need to work toward meeting the people in my life where they are and how much can I ask them to move toward me? It’s a delicate balance for sure.

  8. My nephew is “on the spectrum” and I cringe when I hear his father yell “Act like a normal kid for once!!” Every time he says something like that in my earshot I give him a glare that would freeze hell over. What’s ironic is that my nephew inherited his condition from his father!

  9. Reblogged this on Walkin' on the edge and commented:
    Love this. Every parent of every child, regardless of neurology, would probably find life much easier if we let go of a little control when it doesn’t matter. Being sensitive to our kids doesn’t mean we’re sacrificing power, it means we’re building relationship.

  10. James has a seriously cool mum, lucky bugger.
    But I have to say that while the pasta shelves are fairly neat there’s a big colour issue for me – they have blue bits in with the yellow section and red / green ones on the bottom of the blue section. If I was there I’d be seriously tempted to change it all for them!

      1. I’d have had to crop the photo (or try anyway – technology sometimes escapes me) to only include the ‘right’ shelves 🙂
        I have to organise my kitchen cupboards so that they look right. Well I don’t ‘have to’ but I feel the need to get them right.

  11. It would be really great if supermarkets could organise their aisles by colour rather than by product type – that way I could have everything on one colour scheme! Admittedly i’d probably spend half my life opening and shutting my cupboard doors to admire the contents but……

    1. That’s funny, Liz! I’d keep my pantry door open, so I could see it’s beautiful/ efficient gorgeousness. Everything was neatly aligned. I loved it, but it drove my husband crazy having the door open for some reason. Lol. He’s now an ex because he was unwilling to be flexible. It is a good skill to know to keep the peace! 😀

      1. You should have just pointed out that it was like having an expensive piece of art to appreciate – only a lot cheaper 🙂

  12. Reblogged this on adelesymonds and commented:
    I great insight into the importance of small things to children and adults with Asperger’s Syndrome or anywhere on the autistic spectrum. If you know somebody like this you will ‘get it’ if you don’t you may not.

  13. I think you make a good point that NTs also have some strange rituals. And think about it -even some animals do too! Like how dogs and cats will turn in a circle a few times before lying down. It’s normal for all of us!

  14. Thank you for this insightful and encouraging post. A dear friend of mine who has a son with autism shared this article on Facebook and I checked it out, so this is my first time visiting your site. The wisdom I found in this post even reaches beyond the realm of autism and into my life as well. Autism is not something I face on a regular basis, but my wife struggles with depression and other emotional challenges. I often find myself frustrated at her not being able to cope with certain situations, ones that I find to be no big deal at all (we’re newly weds and I have a lot to learn). Your article made me realize how rigid I can be and how much I could work on being flexible and “meeting her where she is,” embracing what makes her unique from me. Thank you for this.

    1. Great point about the principles here being applicable to a lot more than autism. I was going to say that it’s really important to be able to meet your partner where they are as newlyweds because it’s a time when you’re forming the foundation of your relationship but as someone whose been married nearly 3 decades, i find that even today I need to remember to meet my husband where he is because “where we are” is a constantly changing thing. So thank you for that reminder! 🙂

  15. This is fine if you have a small child, however, if you have an adult who expects to get a job, you will need to teach him or her to deal with the sights and sounds related to working in the real world. I am the mother of 2 grown aspies. I believe we, as parents, need to teach our children to function within the neurotypical world, rather than to expect the world to change for our children’s autistic world.

    1. I can see the practical applications of this but if everyone felt this way about the world, women wouldn’t have the right to vote and nonwhite people would still have different building entrances and water fountains (among many other inequalities). Social change is not only possible, it’s incredibly important to the people who are disadvantaged by prejudice and lack of acceptance.

    2. I can see the need to be able to function within the NT world but I disagree about not expecting the world to change. If only one child was autistic in the world then yes, it would be impractical for everyone else (though you’d hope people interacting with that child could try and find a halfway point) but people on the spectrum are fairly large in number and therefore are significant enough to merit notice. To say that one group should take precedent is akin surely to saying that they are more important. And NTs aren’t more or less important than autists and Aspies. Otherwise you could say that we don’t need to bother with ramps for people in wheelchairs because the majority of us can manage steps. Or subtitles are unnecessary for the deaf and hearing-impaired because the majority can hear. And so on. Surely society can manage to at least consider the needs of all, even if it then has to prioritise some though cost etc.?

    3. This idea you have, Murphy, flies right in the face of the Disability Movement. We have worked so hard for decades and have so far to go in order to obtain recognition of equal rights and finding ways of enforcing those who won’t comply to level the playing field.

      You’re suggesting, essentially, that disabled individuals should hide their disabilities in order to blend in and fake it to pass as typical so as not to inconvenience the rest of the non-disabled world. The world does need to change even as we teach our children to learn to function in that world. That means we have to fight for it, advocate for it, and teach our children to self-advocate.

      If your goal is “don’t cause waves” and “stay under the radar” and encourage your children to pretend Autism doesn’t exist and they’ve learned to cope enough to pass or appear “cured” then that’s not really doing them any favors. It’s inhibiting who they are in their self-expression and sends the message that who they are isn’t “enough” or “good enough.” It’s gives the message that there’s something to hide and be ashamed of. That’s stigma that we’re trying to erase.

      Me, as a woman who has her own disabilities, and as a parent to an autistic daughter.

    4. Define “the real world”. I spend much of my working life sat in a tiny lab with lots of white noise and lots of neutral colours and very little call to actually interact face-to-face.

      You know, along with all the other problems with what you’ve said.

  16. Thrilled to read this my son is obsessed with the cakes at Walmart and does not even like cake really just diagnosed 6/14 I never understood this.

  17. I am also an Aspie (late diagnose at 32, after my son). I agree (most) with the text… But there is a need for teaching (as i have been) the children to be reasonable… I mean this because it´s hard for me to understand, sometimes, when this behavior is an aspie need or a simple temper tantrum…

  18. Neither I nor my daughter (4 yrs old) are on the spectrum, but I parent like this as well. Her perspective on the world is unique and distinct from mine, so if she needs some extra time to look at a snail or an interesting stick that she’s excited about, so be it. We’re sharing this parenting adventure with our kids and their interests and needs also deserve a place in the schedule. (Of course, yes, we also need to get through the trip and collect our cereal, but I try to remember that it’s a gift to go to Target and see it through her eyes rather than tear through the place the way I do when I’m on my own. Her version of Target is much more appealing than mine anyway!)

  19. I don’t have a child with autism, however found all your comments so engaging. It was wonderful to read how everyone seems compelled to problem solve and help each other. God bless you all

  20. I remember a rather odd parent did have one good bit of parenting advice. “Instead of always saying no, how about sometimes why not?” Really, what could it hurt when all that’s at stake is a few moments of curiosity or harmless fun? Kids are curious, they aren’t jaded or as experienced as us adults. There’s a LOT to explore and do. Perhaps why Mrs. Frizzle is still the best teacher for kids. 😉

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