So, I was struggling with coming up with a topic for this week, and I put out a poll on my Instagram account (@fullspectrumsteph) to get some help. I got some great responses, but honestly wasn’t feeling the topic, so I went with the back up option: eating and autism. Ok, now I know what you might be thinking: even people with autism need to eat. And yes, yes we do! As a self-described foodie, I actually think my vegan diet “helps” with my autism, but as always, more on that another time. But, trying to eat just like an allistic/neurotypical/non-autistic person isn’t easy, and is often impossible. It’s not that I, as an autistic person, am being picky or difficult; I have sensory issues and they make eating a challenge!
What are sensory issues?
So, there is a lot here (and here’s a very scientific article if you want to read more!), but basically one of the challenges of being someone who’s autistic is that I have difficulty perceiving the world around me at the right levels. One easy-to-understand example is clothes. Let’s say an allistic/neurotypical/non-autistic person puts on a shirt for the day. After trying it on, they realize that it’s not quite the look they were going for or a tag is a little itchy, but they quickly forget about it and get on with their day.
For me, that shirt that doesn’t fit quite right or has the itchy tag is not something I can look past. To me, it literally hurts. One of the common characteristics of people with autism is that we experience some sensory stimuli in the same way as physical pain (which is part of the reason I almost always wear a hat – to block the pain of the sunlight). So, in other words, while I consciously know that the seams on my shirt aren’t actually hurting me, I can’t turn off that feeling in my brain, so I often have to change my whole outfit from what I had planned.
Eating, autism, sensory issues
Ok, now that we’ve got the basics down, here’s how the tag on a t-shirt relates to food. There are many nerve endings inside our mouths, many opportunities for sensory input. Of course, our taste buds play a role in this sensory environment as well. So, in other words, every time we put a piece of food in our mouths, or even liquid, our brain gets bombarded with a lot of information. Have you ever eaten something that tasted good, but you couldn’t stand the texture? If so, you can understand a little bit of why eating can be hard for autistic people.
When I put something in my mouth, my brain is instantly stimulated by not just the taste, but the texture, size, crunchiness (misophonia anyone?), edges (like on a cracker), temperature, and the list goes on. Sometimes, I can handle having all of those stimuli hit my brain, but other times, not so much. For example, I struggle sometimes to eat nuts because of the crunchiness factor, but love nut butter. Other days, when I’m craving stimulation, the opposite is true!
Side note before moving on: if an autistic person changes their food preferences and you don’t understand it, just go with it. Our lives are challenging enough already, and I promise we’re not trying to make anyone else’s life harder unnecessarily!
As someone who is a foodie and thinks of food as a creative outlet, it can drive me nuts sometimes that I have these challenges, but I’m learning to embrace who I am, struggles and all! Here are some of the things that I struggle with around eating/food, some of which I just learned have to do with my autism today (and thanks Jun and Kari, if you read this, for bringing this to my attention!):
- Liking a food one day, and not the next
- Too many leftovers/food waste (though I always freeze what I can!)
- Having to have the last bite of a meal be perfect, or I am thinking about it for hours
- Eating food a certain way, like eating sandwiches in the round
- Liking the taste of a food, but not being able to eat it because of another factor
- Being “picky” about when I can eat things (ie only have x food on a certain day)
- Smell sensitivity
- Temperature sensitivity (ie some foods HAVE to be eaten cold, like pizza!)
Making it work
It has taken a long time for me to get to this place, but I know that I am living in a world that wasn’t made for me and other autistic people. I could approach this one of two ways. I could try and mold myself into a version of me that fits into the world, masking my challenges so life is easier for those around me (sorry if I’ve ever made it challenging to plan a meal for anyone reading this!).
OR, I can recognize the fact that I live in this world, and make the best of it by being myself. I have these struggles with food, so I work around them when I can. And when I can’t, I try not to beat myself up over it, although I’m still working on that one. Most of the time, I choose this option.
Well, speaking of food, I’m off to work on tonight’s meal. It’s pasta with a few things in it, and a nice, creamy sauce, so should be a nice, sensory friendly meal! The biggest challenge will be getting that perfect last bite, but it’s a challenge with a usually delicious reward.
Thanks for reading, for visiting the blog, and for any comments or questions below! I hope you enjoy your time here!