I can’t

I’m ruminating on something small that happened this week. It was so small that I suspect it passed by unnoticed by everyone except me. It wasn’t big or important but it shone a light on my weaknesses in a way that I hadn’t been anticipating.

I have far bigger challenges and far more pressing obstacles, so why is this one small thing demanding my attention?

The story begins on holiday (stressor one), with other people not just the ones I live with day-to-day (stressor two), we need to grab some food and so stop at a supermarket (stressor three, four and probably five too). Everyone on holiday with me knows that I’m autistic and has known me a long time (help one) and as soon as we get inside the shop I abdicate responsibility for the shopping list to my husband (help two).

It is loud and bright but one good thing about that level of background noise is that no one notices if you’re singing as long as you don’t move your lips. I begin singing as soon as I step through the doors – I’m not sure what it was, but given my son’s current obsession with Jeff Wayne’s War of the Worlds, it was probably from that (help three). I pause in my singing only to respond to people and I stop singing only when I step through those doors again to leave.

A mask has fallen over me. It’s a slightly panicky, helpful and cheerful mask (stressor six). I smile at everyone and try to look as though I do this all the time like a proper grownup (I do not do this all the time).

All seems to be going well and I notice that I am helpfully giving myself a mission to get through it; I want olives. I want specific olives that I am picturing in my head. I walk off to find olives and focus on one tiny detail of this ridiculously over-detailed space.

I can’t find what I want amongst the jars. One of our party wanders over to help and asks what I want. I tell them. They point out the Deli counter and gesture for me to follow them.

I find myself walking towards the counter with the utter certainty that I cannot speak to a stranger right now. I can’t. It is too much. My brain is whirring and starts retreating into my old patterns of excuses and reasons.

I glance at their olives and say they don’t have what I want.

“Just ask, they might have it anyway” (stressor 7). I can see what a reasonable suggestion that is. I’m speaking to this person. They know how eloquent and communicative I am. Why can’t I just ask the now very attentive staff member for the thing that I want?

Because I haven’t scripted for that. I don’t do that. I don’t ever ask the nice staff member for what I want. Not ever. If it was a lovely local shop that I had been going to regularly and knew the assistant and had built up a schematic for, then after a year or so I might feel I knew enough to do that, but never like this.

And I don’t have a good reason why I can’t. I don’t have the ability to explain in that place at that time, that that is not something I can do. I can do so very much but this spiky profile of mine still means there are everyday tasks that are so far beyond my reach whether or not I have a good reason for that.

Luckily I spot a pre-packed Deli section and I stride off towards it. I pick up the first olives I see and declare my task complete, hoping that it wasn’t too obvious that I was running from the interaction.

They probably didn’t notice. They might have thought that I didn’t hear their question or that I had been distracted by something or that I was just being odd again. It doesn’t really matter.

All I knew was that it was one more supermarket trip that I had to cut short. I find my husband, take the car keys and escape to the car, wishing that I’d stayed there in the first place, wishing that I’d never looked for olives, wishing that they will take their time so that I can be alone for a while.

I wish that everyone understood how I worked, but I don’t blame them when they don’t. One of my challenges is feeling as though it’s my personal job to educate everyone in a way that they can understand, when I’m not always up to the task.

I wish I had felt able to say simply, “I can’t,” safe in the knowledge that the response in the moment would never ever ever be, “Why not?”

Because if I can’t, I am at my limits and justifying that would take me beyond them. Sometimes I can’t. I didn’t give this person a chance to get it right, for fear that they would get it wrong and make things that much worse. One day I hope I can say “I can’t” aloud in any given scenario and it will be heard.

35 thoughts on “I can’t

  1. “One of my challenges is feeling as though it’s my personal job to educate everyone in a way that they can understand, when I’m not always up to the task.

    I wish I had felt able to say simply, “I can’t,” safe in the knowledge that the response in the moment would never ever ever be, “Why not?”

    Because if I can’t, I am at my limits and justifying that would take me beyond them. ”
    This hit me hard as a mom to a lovely girl with autism. Need to remember the time to discuss “strategies” is not in the moment. We’re learning, slowly, to take her word for it when she says “I can’t”.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I have people in my life who I trust completely to listen when I say it. It’s wonderful that you are taking the time to learn and listen. We all make mistakes, but that willingness to be trusted with “I can’t” is marvellous.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I recognise this inability to ask strangers for assistance … it happens to me all the time. In my minds eye, I can see my husband urging me to just ask some one while I stubbornly refuse to do so…… because I don’t have the right script, the person I might ask will probably get it wrong anyway, and I would rather help myself ( even if it means spending ages hunting down what it is that I want) because I know what the elusive “it” looks like… So, yes, I would love to be able to flash a little card which reads “I can’t”..

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Oh yes. A card would be perfect. Perhaps with a little note saying, “I can’t. I have a communication condition which can be specific to circumstance. I won’t be able to explain why right now.”


  3. Oh no, I can’t ‘just ask’ either. Over the Christmas holidays I was in a bookshop with my parents. I was looking for a particular book, which wasn’t on the shelves. “Just ask,” they said. But if course I couldn’t, and I couldn’t explain why. Asking for stuff in shops is one of the worst things anyway.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. This was a powerful story. Thanks for sharing. I wonder if you could practice saying “I can’t” after the fact. Later, when you are feeling more secure, could you have said to your friends that you were just not able to formulate the question without a script? Teach them that you might, in the future, say “I can’t” to them and how helpful it would be to you if they could support you when you use those words. This may be totally off base but was just a thought. I admire you for sharing your experiences in writing. It’s a lot harder in the moment.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thank you, I’ve just been discussing just that thing! I am scripting something for the future along those lines. I am usually able to be firmer in my needs but this time I didn’t. Next time I will be better prepared. Excellent advice!


  5. you could take part in research.this would help you great deal. peoples views.judgements are very Snotty Nosed ..i, have aspergers and m.e .long list health issues
    my blog,http;//mark-kent.webs.com


  6. I really hate not being able to say what I want to verbally in a manner society considers “appropriate” (I’ve been made to feel inappropriate by outsiders and family members alike). Writing it down? No problem. But out in the big bad world, I constantly feel this pressure to “perform” AKA “pretend to be normal”, or at least what neurotypical society perceives as such. It’s always a relief to get back home at the end of the day, kick my shoes off and relax for a while.

    Liked by 2 people

  7. I absolutely relate to what that is like. Asking for help, for me can be really difficult so I have developed this way of asking without asking, with my wife. I will really indicate that there is something I like or want or need but I won’t ask for it. She has to volunteer.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. I feel I can relate to this… mostly the singing to calm/distract you and the speaking to people. I can speak to people, but when it comes to asking for help I just clam up, I dont even like other people doing it when I’m with them, it gives me a feeling of unease and pressure; pressure for them to find what you want, and you to take what they offer or stand around waiting, think about wording what you want correctly and quickly enough for them to get back to work.. nope nope nope. And i dont always sing, I count. Or sing 1,2,3,4,5 (once i caught a fish alive lol) because my son listens to rhymes and it has counting in. It helps calm me and I can concentrate better some how. I’m not autistic… from what i know of, my family have suspected I am but i always have said maybe they are the different ones. Its always made me uncomfortable not understanding how people cant do things the way i do them anyway so that would explain it, they’re just not as normal as me 💁🏾‍♀️🤣😜 anyway. I babble on. Thank you. For being relatable. Whatever label you have. You sound frickin cool ✌🏾

    Liked by 1 person

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