Right before starting my freshman year in high school, I spent a week visiting my college-age cousin in Brooklyn. It all felt very grown-up, with her living in the studio apartment she shared with a roommate and me on my first extended trip away from home.
She was my favorite cousin–someone I thought was smart and cool and funny–and I assumed she’d have all sorts of exciting things planned for us. Once I got settled in, she asked me, “What do you want to do?”
“I don’t know.” I had no idea. The city seemed impossibly big and, being from the suburbs of Connecticut, I couldn’t imagine what city people did.
She looked disappointed at my answer and that made me a little annoyed. She lived here. Shouldn’t she have a plan? What kind of person invites someone for a week-long visit with no plan?
“What kind of things are there to do?”
She looked at me like what kind of person doesn’t know what there is to do in New York?
We went for a walk around her neighborhood, then we went to paint a room in the brownstone owned by her boyfriend’s medical school professor. The professor was on vacation so we got to cook out in his miniature garden after we’d finished painting.
Throughout the day, the what do you want to do conversation came up a few more times, and each time I could tell she was growing more frustrated, while I grew more panicked.
I truly had no idea what I wanted to do. She couldn’t believe this was possible.
I couldn’t even come up with the simplest suggestion like ‘I want a cheeseburger’ or ‘I want to see the Empire State Building.’ Every time she asked what I wanted to do, my mind went completely blank and then flooded with panicked variations of what’s wrong with me?
Because she–and now her boyfriend and roommate–obviously expected me to know what I wanted to do.
Finally, as we were finishing up dinner at the professor’s brownstone, my cousin handed me the current edition of The New Yorker. “Here,” she said, “look through the events in the front and find something you want to do this week.”
“Like what?” I asked, still not getting it.
“Anything,” she replied.
I flipped through the pages, reading the listings for movies and art shows. Choosing still seemed impossible, even now that I had a finite list to pick from. Comparing each option with all the others was overwhelming, and what if I picked the wrong thing and they thought I was weird? I’d learned by then that I had weird interests for my age and gender.
I eventually put the magazine down and the three of them looked at me expectantly. “What do you guys want to do?” I asked.
“Do you like comedy?” my cousin’s roommate asked.
“Yes!” Yes, I did. I loved sitcoms and stand-up comics. In fact, before my cousin moved away, we used to spend hours in her room listening to her Steve Martin albums.
“Why didn’t you say so?” the roommate asked.
Because even though I like comedy and it was a favorite way to spend time with my cousin, it just didn’t occur to me. For an aspie, this is a familiar occurrence. It happens when someone asks me what I want to eat or what my favorite color is or where I want to go on vacation. In my head, these questions have an infinite number of possible answers and I don’t know how to begin narrowing the possibilities down.
The same is true if someone hands me a piece of paper and says “draw something.” My immediate reaction is “but what?” I’m an avid writer, but I never sit down at the computer unless I have a firm idea of what I want to write. To open a blank document with no idea of where I plan to start writing is unthinkable. It terrifies me and would be completely unproductive. I’d be better off taking a nap because at least then I wouldn’t be beating myself up over how bad I am at coming up with spontaneously creative ideas.
“Just think” is a common phrase of encouragement when someone draws a blank. But for aspies, the harder we try, the more elusive the answer becomes. The biggest problem is that when I “just think” in those situations, I’m devoting 90% of my thoughts and energy to the fact that I can’t think of an answer and how stupid that must be making me look.
I there’s a relatively straightforward explanation for why aspies have difficulty with things like deciding what to order off a menu at a new restaurant. The thought process involved in these types of decisions requires us to apply emotional discrimination to arrive at a choice.
For example, in choosing what I want from a menu, I’ll first eliminate the things I don’t like. Then I have to decide what I’m in the mood for. Pasta or soup? A burger or a salad? This usually involves considering what I’ve had for other meals that day or even in recent days, because I like to balance my meals.
It also takes into consideration what the other people at the table are having. I don’t like to order the same thing as anyone else. If possible I’d like my entree to be complementary to my husband’s so we can share. If he gets steak, I’ll get a vegetarian dish or seafood. Finally, I’ll factor in what the restaurant specializes in, giving those dishes more weight based on the reasoning that a steakhouse isn’t going to have good fish (which is probably faulty logic in many cases).
This process of elimination usually leaves me with a few choices, any of which I’d be perfectly happy eating. I could ask the waitress to bring any one of my “finalists” and whichever showed up, I’d be content with it. But restaurants don’t work like that, so I often end up choosing at random. The waitress is standing by the table and everyone else has ordered and I’ll simply pick the choice I was thinking about last or the one my eyes happen to fall on when I look back at the menu.
At restaurants that I’ve visited more than a few times, I don’t have this problem. I order the same thing every time. Olive Garden? Spaghetti and meatballs. Cleopatra’s? The al meriam plate. Rooftop Pizza? The number 6 pizza with artichoke hearts, goat cheese and sundried tomatoes.
A lot of aspies have food sensitivities, which lead to eating a limited range of foods. But for others–those of us with few or no issues about with what type of foods we can eat– the tendency to eat the same thing over and over may have something to do with how hard it is to choose, how much work we have to put into identifying what we like and want at any given moment.
As an adult I’ve learned some strategies that make me look less clueless. If I’m visiting someone’s house and they ask me what I want to drink, I’ve learned to ask, “What do you have?” This has the dual benefit of narrowing down my choices and giving me a few extra seconds to process the choice I’m going to have to make. Same thing with “what do you want to do?” The easiest reply is “what are you in the mood for?” or “what’s fun to do on a Saturday night around here?” NTs have lots of preferences, often strong ones, and are generally happy to lead.
I’m not suggesting that aspies need to be wishy-washy followers, but when you have trouble making choices, a little help from NT friends or relatives helps shorten the list of possibilities and take away those long terrifying moments of your brain chanting I don’t know over and over again.
How did the rest of that vacation go? My cousin and her friends took me to an improv show in a dark little basement comedy club the next night and I loved it. We went to the Museum of Natural History (I fantasized about living in a museum a kid), a street market, an old art film, and an erotic bakery. Her roommate let me help her conduct a phone survey for her sociology class, counting to every tenth name in a random section of the phonebook and dialing the numbers for her. My cousin’s boyfriend took me to spend a day at the psychiatric facility at Bellevue Hospital where he was studying as part of his medical school work at NYU. His professor (whose house we had painted) showed me the film “Everybody Rides the Carousel” about Erik Erikson’s eight stages of life.
Then I got a tour of the massive medical library and the human dissection lab which had actual corpses in various stages of dissection. There was even a cross-section of a penis in a jar, which was morbidly fascinating for a teenage girl. For an entire week, nobody looked at me like I was a weirdo for enjoying picking names out of a phone book or staring into the chest cavity of a corpse or being fascinated by Erik Erikson. It was one of the best weeks of my teenage years.
And a post-postscript: When I searched for “Everybody Rides the Carousel” I found this clip and was reminded about why I was so fascinated by the film. It has a certain nonlinear, demented quality to it that I still find hard to unravel.