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How My Life With Asperger's Is Like an Overstuffed Burrito

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I generally don’t get symbolism; I’m just wired that way. Tell me something and I’ll think you actually meant what you said. Art and literature usually don’t cause any emotional stirring within me, regardless of how much I want them to.

But music… music can move me. On rare occasions I’m even temporarily gifted the ability to see deeper than the words in a performance, and I feel touched and enlightened.

These words are the beginning of one of those experiences for me:

“I can’t fit my hand inside a Pringle can.”  —Bo Burnham

A lament for our time, found within the closing performance by Bo Burnham during his Netflix special “Make Happy.” As he asks “If you feel me put your hands up,” hundreds of hands are lifted to the sky and Bo proclaims: “Look at all these hands that are way too big to fit inside a Pringle can. Pringles listen to the people! Just make them wider!” Such wisdom from a young man of 25.

OK, maybe it’s not that profound. However, as often happens with people on the spectrum, Bo’s performance got stuck on a loop in my head, and I ended up watching it over and over. Fair warning, “Make Happy” isn’t for everyone. Bo’s sense of humor would offend the majority of my acquaintances, but for me, the loop I got stuck in helped me find meaning in his words.

My life with Asperger’s syndrome is a lot like trying to get Pringles out of a can that is too small for my hand.

In certain situations, no matter how hard I try to fold myself to conform to a standard determined by someone else, if I try to follow my own logic, what I want is just beyond my reach. Since “my way” of thinking can’t work, I get overwhelmed and just dump everything out and pick-up what I can, hoping I’ll be able to clean up the messy crumbs when it’s done. More often than not, I just leave a small disaster in my wake.

Sometimes I literally end up dumping things around me out to get to things I need because I end up overwhelmed by the process. More often it’s not something physical, it’s the frustration of trying to communicate in a way other people understand, which results in me spitting out a whole lot of words. Sometimes it hurts people around me… I get the feeling people don’t like Pringles crumbs spewed all over them. I often wonder how I get myself into these situations in the first place.

“I wouldn’t have got the lettuce if I knew it wouldn’t fit. Wouldn’t have got the cheese if I knew it wouldn’t fit. Wouldn’t have got the peppers if I knew they wouldn’t fit.” –Bo Burnham

Bo continues on to tell of a time he went to Chipotle and got a chicken burrito. Going down the line, he added ingredient after ingredient. When he got to the end, the guy tried wrapping it up but half the stuff spilled out, thus defeating the purpose of a burrito.

Why didn’t the expert warn him he was getting too much? Did the expert think it was obvious that you can’t put everything in a burrito? Did he think Bo was the one giving instructions, so he must know what he wants? Did it cross his mind that a little warning or advice could have made things better? Did he intentionally withhold the information because he gets a kick out of people’s burrito misery?

Regardless, the burrito expert stayed silent, and Bo was left with a mess. If only Bo had known, he wouldn’t have got half of what he did. The mantra cried over and over. “I wouldn’t have got the lettuce if I knew it wouldn’t fit.” And there is a huge part of my life with Asperger’s summed up in a silly song.

Life often feels like a series of mistakes made because no one told me what to them was obvious. And since no one explained to me how to behave, I’m stuck feeling foolish with a messy burrito spilling everywhere. I think many people can relate to that situation. But for me, and perhaps others on the spectrum, it goes beyond people not telling me how to behave. Often I’ve been told. I should know better, but I simply didn’t have the capacity at the time to link that information to the situation in which I found myself. I don’t always have the ability to know what is going to fit a given situation, and that can leave me stuck looping over where I went wrong after the fact.

I wouldn’t have talked so much about my interests if I knew how to read the “obvious” social cues that you want to end the conversation.

I wouldn’t have stayed silent to the point of it being awkward if I knew this was the part where I was supposed to participate, since you made a tiny pause indicating you were looking to me to speak now.

I wouldn’t have talked over you if I knew my pause for breath told you to begin speaking.

I wouldn’t have answered your question honestly if I knew the correct thing to do in this situation was to be polite and validate your point of view.

I wouldn’t have sat in a corner secretly plugging my ears because it’s too loud and too much is going on if I knew of a socially acceptable way to deal with being overwhelmed.

I wouldn’t have tried to fit my hand in the Pringle can.

I don’t think I can handle this right now.

I know everyone gets overwhelmed and plenty of “normal” people have problems trying to fit in. It’s not just an Asperger’s or autism thing, and I don’t want to diminish anyone’s experience. While Bo is relating his own struggle of trying to deal with life and fitting in, the song resonates with me. If you want to really “feel” the internal conflict I think many people on the spectrum deal with every day, take the last 60 seconds of the video or so and then loop it… for an hour or two.

Not the most uplifting post, I know. But that’s the thing — life isn’t always about happiness and being uplifted. We feel sad, angry, disgusted, or afraid sometimes, and often more than one of those at a time. “Can’t handle this” transitions from talking about our problems to those conflicting emotions we find while trying to “Make Happy.”

But is “making happy” really the point to all this?

I guess we’ll have to find out.

Follow Jeff’s writing on LinkedIn.

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Originally published: June 13, 2017
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