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When I Realized the Grocery Store Bagger Has Autism

A man about 25 years old works at our local supermarket. Let’s call him “Sam.”

Sam works as a bagger and general helper at the supermarket. He’s a large young man — would have made a good linebacker in high school. Sam is one of the hardest workers at the store. Some of us understand Sam, and some do not. Some stare and crunch up their faces with a questionable look. Sam has autism.

On any given day you will find Sam at the end of the checkout lane conversing with himself. He has a vast knowledge of sports teams, remembering the dates of games, the score and the upcoming schedules of each team. He has a habit of smacking his hands together with such force that the sound resonates through the supermarket. I often wondered if this was a coping skill taught to him to use when he gets nervous or if it was a replacement given to him for a more offensive behavior. Or maybe for him, it’s a sensory issue.

One day as he was bagging I said, “So, Sam, how are you doing today?” He immediately put down the item he was bagging and walked away. Oh my God, I thought to myself, you scared him and he had to walk away to avoid reacting negatively to it. Then the cashier told me, ” He won’t touch pickles… If you buy a jar of pickles he won’t bag it.”

I breathed an autism mom sigh of relief. I was having an I-should-have-known-better moment there for a bit.

Sam will talk with anyone. Usually you can hear him spotting folks he knows in the market. He’ll call from two aisles over, “Hello, Mrs. Brandy Miller. How are you today?” “Mrs. Brandy Miller, are you still working at the bank?” “Nice to see you, Mrs. Brandy Miller, OK, talk to you soon.” The problem is, as I noticed today, sometimes the person to whom the greeting is directed, fails to respond. I find this sad.

Today, as I entered the checkout line, Sam was in a different position from his usual end-of-the-checkout bagger spot. Sam was a customer. “Sam,” I called, “are you doing your own shopping today?” “Yes, I am, how are you today, thank you, I’m doing very well,” he replied. He had a decent size cart of groceries.

My curiosity aroused.

As he had his groceries rung up, he conversed with the girl running the register. “Ashley, do you work tomorrow? I work 10 to 2, Ashely. Do you work tomorrow, Ashley? Ashley, I’ll see you tomorrow when I work 10 to 2. Ashley, what hours do you work tomorrow?”

I wondered if he was actually shopping or doing a practice run. I perused the groceries he’d selected. Many juice boxes, a jug of lemonade, ice tea, a bottle of vitamin water, a link of some type of smoked sausage, two or three Lean Cuisine-type dinners. And two Sunday newspapers. He bagged it all himself in the reusable, keep-it-green type of plastic shopping bags the store sells. The total: $133.

“I’m going to pay for my order in a minute, Ashley. Ashley, I will pay for my order in a minute.” He fished his debit card from his wallet. “I’m gonna pay for my order, Ashley.” His gaze changed to the computer screen that shows the total as the register records it. “Ashley, how much was that newspaper? It should be $1.75. The Carlisle paper is $2.00 and the Harrisburg paper is $1.75.” The cashier was confused.

“There are two newspapers there,” I pointed out to her. Sam knew the prices of both and noticed that the register had only rung up the one on the bottom as the cashier slid them over the scanner, since one was on top of the other. “I’m gonna pay for my order now, Ashley.” He slid his debit card through the machine, entered his code and announced, “I’m gonna go put these in the car now, Ashley. I will see you when I work 10 to 2 tomorrow, I will see you. When you are working tomorrow, Ashley? Have a nice day, Ashley, OK, bye, bye.”

And he departed.

I wanted to grab the lady behind me in line and shake her, saying, “Did you see what Sam just did? He bought his own groceries and paid for them correctly. He has a job, he earns his own money, and he came in here unescorted and did his own shopping. Do you understand what a great accomplishment that is?”

But of course I could not. It would take me hours to explain to the average person not aware of autism, how much work, bravery and fortitude it took for this young man to get to this point in his life. My frozen foods would melt in the time it would take me to explain that a grocery store full of crying babies, loudspeaker announcements, crowded aisles and a sea of colors can be a nightmare for our family members on the spectrum. So, I smiled to myself for his achievement and paid for my own order.

As I exited the store, the idea crossed my mind that I would love to be able to speak with his parents. I would love to ask them how they managed to teach him all they had that got him to this level of independence. I scanned the parking lot hoping that perhaps he was still loading groceries into the car. I swore to myself I would approach them and congratulate them and Sam for his job well done. But alas, he was gone.

Every time I see Sam at work at the market, I’m reminded that I too have a son with autism. I wonder, can I teach him what he will need to know to at least reach this level of self sufficiency?

I suppose it will be one day at a time — one jar of pickles at a time.

This post originally appeared on Joey’s Ma.