Not Just About Limits: A Misconception About Autism and Food

Old kitchen with many implements and a big window
In this kitchen, the window would always be open for me. Photo by Charlotte May on Pexels.com

The windows are open, or the air conditioner is cranked up, so that I do not get too hot. I put on gloves before I handle the sticky dough, and use a spoon – rather than my hand – to sprinkle the sugar and seeds on the cookies. These are a few little ways you might see my autism playing out in the kitchen.

I have talked about being autistic and how it affects cooking before, both in my writing and in this excellent piece by Ruby Tandoh. In this and the next two posts, though, I want to focus on autism and cooking generally. As part of the research for this piece, I collected thoughts and experiences from several dozen other autistic people, on social media and in my life.

Every autistic person is different. Some, like me, can “pass” as neurotypical in certain situations and are extroverts. Some cannot, are introverts, or use spoken language intermittently or not at all. Some have strong sensory sensitivities (like me). Some do not. Some see things in black-and-white. Others struggle to see things as binary choices or complex systems (like me). Some need comparatively little support in their day-to-day lives. Others need more support from others – which does not affect their worth or capacity. All these things affect how autistic people engage with food and everything around it. Yet many people see food and autism as a conversation only about limits.

Pasta
(Photo CC)

“Autistic people are all very picky eaters.” “Autistic people have severe food limits.” “Autistic people cannot cook independently.” These are things I have seen and heard bandied about, even by other autistic folks. And while these things do apply to some autistic folksand there’s no shame in that – these are generalizations that also reduce the entire autistic experience of food to one of limits.

While limits matter, they are not the only way autism connects to food. Being autistic is a non-stop, all-encompassing experience, and of course, that will include food. Besides, autistic folks are as complicated as everyone else – and that applies as much to me as it does to someone with higher support needs and different capacities. To go beyond this idea of limits, I will now walk through three aspects of autistic relationships with food: sensory, executive, and interest.  

A shelf of canned fish
(Photo public domain)

Autism is a sensory experience. Many of us are highly sensitive to certain things that we touch or perceive – bright or dim lights, hot or cold temperatures, loud noises or quiet, or any of a panoply of textures can cause a level of distress or joy other people usually do not experience. A bad sensory impact can affect our ability to do other things, regulate our emotions, or remember certain facts or aspects of our surroundings. Many autistic people experience sensory sensitivities that relate to food. Some people cannot eat food with certain textures, or touch ingredients with certain textures. Others, like me, need to be careful with how hot the kitchen gets while we are cooking. One friend of mine cannot handle the sound of other people chewing. Other sensory experiences, however, can bring a type of joy or pleasure beyond that of non-autistic people – something that scientists have noted in autistic people’s dopamine responses to certain stimuli. The smells of the food, touching other textures, or the process of iterative tasting as one adjusts a recipe were all cited as “sensorily pleasant” experiences. Some of the people I spoke with cited these “sensory-seeking experiences” as a reason they enjoy cooking or eating certain foods. I myself have this with the sensation of stirring, which I find soothing.

Spoons with spices
Photo by Karolina Grabowska on Pexels.com

Autism affects executive function – which then determines how we cook. Autistic people sometimes have different strains on doing everyday tasks or other tasks, such as keeping things organized or focusing on certain topics. For example, I tend to get hyper-focused on specific things, whereas another friend has trouble staying focused on one thing for too long. In the kitchen, many autistic people do certain things to help concentrate or do tasks in a workable order. For example, some autistic people must have a completely clean and clear kitchen area to cook at all, or else the clutter is too distracting. Others need specific directions, with exact recipes and mentions of equipment and time ahead of time. Other people have difficulty following a recipe exactly, and cannot “clean as they go along.” Some people save their meal planning for special occasions like holidays – and others, like me, plan many of our meals days in advance. Each autistic person tends to do something different in the kitchen as a result – but it is all with different capacities in mind.

For some people, cooking can be so taxing that it cannot be done every day or very frequently at all. Hence, many autistic people rely on prepared foods or other processed foods, and others rely on the same food for many meals. Many autistic people on the internet joke that boxed mac and cheese is an “official food” of autism. Other autistic people live with people who do more of the cooking or food decision making. These experiences not only parallel other people with disabilities, but also many people whose time or executive function are affected by other things. I doubt that many autistic people’s diets and food habits are that different from that a busy non-autistic parent of a newborn or young infant, or someone overworked or juggling multiple jobs. Processed foods and prepared foods help all these people – it just takes a specific form for autistic people.

A cook ladles brown onion soup into bowls, four of which are full and eight of which are empty. A large pot is to her side.
(Photo US Air Force)

Many autistic people have intense, particular passions for a topic or an activity – which many autistic people call “special interests.” For some, the sensory joys and experiences of cooking – and all the tasty food – becomes one of those interests. For most autistic people with this interest, like me, cooking becomes a hobby. However, I was lucky enough to hear from several people whose special interest led them to become professional chefs. These people often had developed their own sophisticated ways to deal with any sort of sensory or function issue. What was even more interesting, though, was to see how many people chose to go into food precisely because it played into their traits and life as an autistic person – from the heightened sensitivity to certain things to the ability to do the same things and find joy in them to being fulfilled in their passion. If anything, cooking was the opposite of limiting: it was liberating. In that freedom, of course, was deliciousness too. Autistic chefs told me about a few proud culinary achievements: intricate truffles, delicate yet fierce meat rubs, and creative renditions of “comfort foods” among them.

We all have our own, individual, complicated relationships with food. Autism plays a role. Constraining the conversation to limits means that we cannot appreciate the joys, fun, emotional wrangling, and practical considerations that autistic people have around food. Nor can everyone learn from autistic food experiences – which, in the final post of this series, I will discuss. In the next post, though, I will look at what different autistic people cook, and how they cook it.

A quick note: many autistic people prefer “identity-first language,” because autism is part of an identity and can’t be separated from the person. Other people on the autism spectrum prefer “person-first language,” because they want to emphasize the humanity first. (Some non-autistic people like to mention something about not being defined by the autism, which tends to rub most of us the wrong way.) I switch between the two in my day-to-day life, but many of the people I spoke with strongly prefer identity-first language. So I am using that.

Thank you to the dozens of autistic people who I spoke with while preparing to write this piece, particularly those on the Autism Meals Facebook group.

3 thoughts on “Not Just About Limits: A Misconception About Autism and Food

  1. Thank you for your thoughtful posts on autism and food! I taught myself to cook at a young age because of my aversions and limitations, which were too much for my busy mom to accommodate – she always found cooking exhausting and boring and was surprised and impressed to learn that I loved it and had a natural talent. It was always calming to me, chopping can be very stimmy after all! And my hyperfocused curious brain loved the science of baking. I also felt like growing up I was never good at anything – no sports ability, a hard time with learning and making friends, etc. so my depression and alienation started at a shockingly young age. Learning to cook delicious food gave me a way to connect with my family and get positive feedback without having to engage too much verbally, and take part in meaningful Jewish traditions in my own way. Now going into my 40s I am the guardian of many family recipes, some even that I developed myself like my gluten-free coconut cream pie (if I showed up to Pesach without it, there might be a riot). I don’t feel the need to prove my usefulness and justify my worth any more, but I still show my love best by feeding people rather than with words.

    Liked by 1 person

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