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Watermelon Syndrome

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Watermelon Syndrome

Jennifer Cook O’Toole


We’ve all been there. Trying to scoop our words up off of the floor—to reel them back in. I call it “Watermelon Syndrome.” And I, too, have suffered.

In 1987, a movie called Dirty Dancing came out, and I’m pretty sure I saw it more than 23 times. The whole story is basically about a goody-two-shoes girl who falls in love with the “bad boy” dance instructor at a summer getaway. As both a goody-two-shoes and a dancer, I was all over this thing.

But even this many years later, my absolute favorite line in that movie isn’t some perfectly-timed zinger or swoon-worthy whisper. Nope. What I love most is what Goody-Two-Shoes Girl manages to say when she finally has the chance to speak to Mr. Hot Stuff.

Scene: secret party (and therefore infinitely cooler than any she’s ever been to). Wild music (she is utterly not wild). Over-the-top dancing (she can’t dance to save her life). Then, Johnny notices her. This is a social once-in-a-lifetime moment—maybe.

“What is she doing here?” he asks with disdain.

And in a moment of total cringe-worthiness, she answers, “I carried a watermelon.”

Yep. That’s it. She toted fruit. He rolls his eyes, walks away, and instantly, she wants to die of utter uncoolness. “I carried a WATERMELON?!” she yells, slamming her forehead against the wall. Errgh!

Everyone at some point or another says the perfectly wrong thing at the perfectly wrong time. My Advanced Placement US history teacher began our year by telling the sophomores in the room that she didn’t think we had any business being there. “This class is simply too demanding,” she warned.

To which I retorted, “Just watch us.” OUT LOUD. (Even today, the surest way to get me to do something is to tell me I can’t. “Just watch me!” I still say. To myself.)

Oh, one more doozy. While on a first date years ago, the fact arose that my mom was undergoing treatment for breast cancer. “Really?” the guy nodded, trying to make conversation. “Yeah, my aunt died of that.”

Look, I know he was just nervous; he wasn’t trying to be rude. But if ever there was an example of “You don’t actually have to say everything that pops into your head,” there you have it.

Here’s the takeaway: when we are keyed up emotionally—maybe angry or frustrated, nervous, worried, even giddy or excited—we are much more likely to do and say things impulsively, without thinking about the circumstances or the effects. And the results are usually not stellar.

Let me paint a picture: say there’s a domino run set up on the floor of a hallway. If you are distracted by an annoying tag or flickering light, you don’t quite feel like you belong (like Goody-Two-Shoes Girl), or you feel pressured to make witty conversation (my date), you’re probably not going to pay steady attention to those dominoes. Odds are, you’re going to accidentally knock one down, which is going to knock all of the rest down, too. That’s like social fallout—the unintended consequences or friendly fire—of speaking impulsively.

Things get messy fast.

There are, however, a few tips I’ve learned along the way to prevent Watermelon Syndrome:

  • Planning is power. Pay attention to what people or situations trigger you. Then, when you know similar circumstances are ahead, problem solve ahead of time.
  • Recall a cringeworthy situation and ask yourself what you thought, what you felt (an adjective), how your body felt (nauseous, sweaty, dizzy), and what you did. The next time you start to recognize those signs, spend five minutes calming down. Take some deep breaths, and consciously choose your next steps based on what you want to happennot on how you were feeling a few minutes ago.
  • Notepads (both real and on your phone) are awesome. If you notice that you frequently blurt things out because you’re afraid you’ll forget your ideas, write them out! You can even text yourself, if you need to satisfy the urge to act immediately (I have!). Do not be embarrassed by needing to jot down your thoughts. Why do you think every phone and tablet comes with reminder and to-do features?
  • Being (H)ungry, (A)ngry, (L)onely, or (T)ired (remember HALT) clouds thinking, often leading to decisions or comments you’ll regret. Try to arm yourself by eating a healthy snack and exercising. Go for a walk while listening to a meditation podcast, an audiobook, or your favorite music. Or toss in “Just Dance 2014.” Ride a bike. Swim some laps. Whatever you like to do, do it. Physical work calms your nervous system; it’s sweaty, but it’s true.

The first time I met my husband was at work. He’d been watching me and was totally embarrassed when I looked over and noticed. To try to save face, he turned and quickly began studying a nearby bulletin board —very seriously. Though I couldn’t see it, I happened to know that this particular board was completely empty. “See anything interesting?” I teased.

Now, that could’ve easily become a Watermelon Syndrome moment for him, but he did something simple and genuine that won my heart. Instead of trying to cover it up or be funny, he smiled shyly, faced me, and extended his right hand. “Hi,” he said. “I’m John.” That was it. And that was all it took. You see, you don’t have to be smooth or slick. In the end, you just have to be you. (Watermelon not required.)


Jennifer O’Toole, winner of the 2012 Temple Grandin Award, is an Aspie (married to an Aspie) with three Asperkids of her own! Her conversationalist presentation of useful insights has touched hearts, lightened spirits, and even led to the founding of Asperkids, LLC, a multimedia social education company. Jennifer is the author of five books, including The Asperkid’s (Secret) Book of Social Rules.


Copyright © Autism Asperger’s Digest. 2014. All Rights Reserved. Any distribution, print or electronic, prohibited without permission of author.

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