Posted by: E (The Third Glance) | March 23, 2012

When Social Scripts Fail

I was out grocery shopping with a friend of mine a couple of days ago. We almost always go together, because I have a car and he doesn’t, so when I’m going, I generally take him along. We’re both PhD students, and he enjoys buying his bottle of $2 wine for the week. I don’t drink, even though I’m of age (I’m 22), for a number of reasons, both medical and personal. It’s just not on my list of things to do, and by my count, I’m saving lots of money and lots of brain cells – win/win! But I digress…

Anyway, we were going through the check-out line, and we usually share a cart, but do 2 separate transactions. This past week was a final exam week, and it was a particularly busy day at the store, with people moving all around. The cashier first checked out my friend, and asked for his ID (he’s 23). Then the cashier noticed I wasn’t buying any wine. And here’s where my social script failed. Our conversation went something like this:

Cashier: “I assume since you’re not buying any wine, that finals week isn’t over for you?”

Me: “I am over 21, I swear. I just don’t drink”

Cashier: “So you’re not done with finals yet?”

Me: “No, I just don’t drink. But I’m over 21. I just don’t drink.”

My friend: “He’s asking you if your finals are over.”

Me: “I can show you my ID if you want. I AM over 21. I just don’t drink. Do you want to see my ID?”

Cashier: “So finals aren’t over for you?”

My friend (to the Cashier): “We’re both done with finals.”

My friend (to me, as we’re leaving): “He was asking about finals. He wasn’t trying to card you or anything.”

Me (as I finally process the conversation that *actually* happened): “Oh.”

And here’s what went wrong: I am 22. I look like I’m 15. If I buy alcohol (which has happened exactly once in my life, as I was getting something to bring to a dinner party), I will get carded. I live in a college town, where there’s often an issue with people buying alcohol for minors, so I’m always wary of getting in trouble for being the “receiving minor” even if I’m not on any count (something about being terrified to break rules). In fact, cashiers have insinuated it in the past when my friend has bought wine and I haven’t. So when this cashier carded my friend, then made the comment about me not buying any wine, my brain immediately went to the script it’s used to: the one that proves I’m perfectly legal: I’m over 21, and heck, I don’t drink anyway, which is why I’m not buying wine. It’s not that he’s buying 2 bottles of wine, one for him and one for me because I’m not legal to drink yet. It’s simply that he’s buying 2 bottles of wine.

This is how my brain works. I hear a few key words, and that is usually enough to recall the information necessary for the conversation. Especially in a stressful situation (such as the checkout line of the grocery store during a busy time), that’s the only way for me to be able to converse. I can’t process the verbal conversation, bag my groceries, AND deal with all the insanity of people moving around me. So I rely on the fact that the cashiers usually ask me the same questions, that I have answers to already. This one asked me a different question than what I was expecting, but with enough similarity to what I’m used to (it started out the same… the way that the question usually goes is “I assume since you’re not buying any wine, you’re not old enough to drink.”). I answered the question my brain heard, not the one that was actually asked.

These little foibles don’t happen that often these days, but when they do, they give me further insight into my mind (and looking back, some of them can be pretty funny, too). So next time you or your child or your Autistic friend says something that just slightly misses the mark, take a minute, and try to help them figure out the difference between what they heard and what was understood. Maybe you’ll both learn something along the way!

This is a prime example of how conversation works for me. Please, if you haven’t already looked at it, my Words essay shows another example of how I process verbal language in situations with a little bit more sensory overload, and is far more eloquent than this one.

Also, this piece has nothing to do with the egregious assumption that everyone in college and graduate school must drink, though of course, that assumption is what was driving this whole conversation. Don’t get me wrong, I think that assumption is flawed (obviously, as I don’t drink), and it shouldn’t be up to anyone but yourself to decide whether you imbibe or not. But that’s not really the point of this particular blog entry. Of course, comments of this nature are welcome though!



EDITED TO ADD: This sort of thing isn’t a completely abnormal experience… here’s another one I wrote about: “Conversational Failures: or An Afternoon in the Life of an Autistic Adult


  1. I relate to this so well!

    “I answered the question my brain heard, not the one that was actually asked.”

    I am slowly realizing that episodes like this are due to ASD. I’ve done this for years! It’s the worst at doctor’s offices. My brain slurps up a comment or question and I lose the thread of what was actually being said.

    It helps me to know that this is part of my mental processing! 🙂


  2. I see this in my son sometimes too. I am wondering then from my outsiders perspective if there is anything the person with you can do that is helpful. It seemed your friend handled this wonderfully.

    • Well, my friend didn’t manage to break the cycle of social script failure. He just helped to end the situation and talked to me about it afterwards. I don’t know if I could’ve been redirected during the interaction.

  3. It reminds me of my daughter (5yo) the other day … she had just showed one of her (boy-) friends her ice-block and was walking away from him when he shouted at her “You’re so lucky” and she looked back over her shoulder and called out “I love you too!” 🙂

    • I have definitely said very similar things… 🙂 Thanks for stopping by and commenting!

  4. vyinsightful, tx4sharing i see it to my gifted aspie aka twicexceptional-teach us more abt how2recognize&help in public.

  5. Um yeah I have done something like that before. So emberassing to me when I did it.

  6. Such an interesting breakdown of something that happens to me a lot. Usually, though, I’m on the other side of the conversation, i.e. the one asking the question, and get an answer that just does not compute. I try different ways of asking the question and get the same answer. It never occurs to me that the other person might be autistic too (unlikely, given the frequency of this kind of occurrence), and I just get frustrated and sometimes angry.

    I will follow your advice, and take a moment to work out what I’m trying to say and what I’m actually saying!

    • 🙂 I’m guilty of “asking too many questions” when I pose a question to my classes… I will say it one way, then again another way, and again, a 3rd way. And it definitely confuses people, sadly. Thanks for the comment! 🙂

  7. Unless I am getting to know a client in OT, I never use social scripts. Rather, I think of what things people in an environment might be interested in. The more you know the environment, the more you then can zero in topics that you think people will be interested to talk about.

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