What Do Autistic People Cook?

This post is part two of a three-part series. See the first post here.

In my last post, I discussed how the relationship between autism and food, often narrated as limiting, is actually multifaceted and very complex. There is joy, there is creativity, and yes, there are boundaries, but we autistic people relate to food well beyond limits. In this post, though, I want to discuss what autistic people cook, and how they go about cooking it.

What do autistic people cook? The answer to this question of course tends to vary from culture to culture – though on the internet, you’d come to believe that macaroni and cheese is the national dish of autistic people. A few commonalities abound. Many autistic people rely heavily on the same or a few recipes for various reasons. These “same foods” are safe from the perspective of sensory needs or a need for structure; the recipe is “known” enough to allow preparation without taxing executive function; often, the ingredients are on hand too. I have noticed that these same foods are often comfort foods of whatever culture an autistic person grew up with – for example, huevos con ejotes in Mexico or chili for people from Cincinnati.

Bowl of meaty Cincinnati chili with cheddar cheese on top.
Cincinnati chili. (Photo CC/Wikimedia Commons)

Other autistic people tend to enjoy cooking a wide variety of foods, especially if – like me – they find sensory pleasure in cooking. Some autistic people also do not enjoy consecutive meals or consecutive textures. Sometimes, the “calculus” in a recipe might be different for autistic people than for people who are not autistic. For example: many autistic people are highly sensitive to texture, so a recipe may be more closely aligned around textural contrast or consistency than taste. (Chinese culinary tradition builds heavily on these contrasts.) Other autistic people, including me, add to the astringency, pungency, or acidity of their food, often doubling or tripling the amount of garlic, onions, or chilies in a dish. I realize as I write this that I’ve “gassed out” many neurotypical housemates over the years with a particularly spicy dish. It is hard to categorize what we autistic people in this category make, but I have noticed that many of us enjoy Mexican cuisine, Japanese and Korean cuisines, and the cuisines from around the Indian Ocean basin – Ethiopian, Indian, and Thai food. These culinary traditions place a lot of stock in the sensory experiences to which many autistic people are especially sensitive.

Gnocchi on a board
Gnocchi (photo CC)

Many autistic people are very adept at substitutions. Part of this skill comes from the aversions many autistic people have to certain textures, foods, or ingredients – and so they have to learn how to, for example, substitute for the depth of onion without the texture of onion. In addition, it appears anecdotally that autistic people are disproportionately vegetarian, vegan, or adherent to religious dietary rules. Sometimes, cooking certain things might involve an ingredient “swap.” When I surveyed people on an autistic food forum, a lot of contributors brought up substitutions.

Autistic people often heavily rely on written recipes. Why? Many autistic people have an easier time with structured directions or steps when doing complex tasks like cooking, and a well-written recipe helps in this regard. When recipes go awry, it can be hard for many autistic people to “course correct” – even when, as is often the case, it is the recipe author’s fault. (I’ve had to correct a few myself.)

Other autistic people, like me, are not as reliant on recipes but need other forms of structure in the kitchen as well – and tend to do certain things in very routine or predictable ways. For example, I cannot go to a grocery store without a list, which means I plan what I cook at home – and many adjustments I might make to recipes – well in advance. One autistic person posted about planning meals for a whole month! Autistic people often memorize key recipes, too – which adds another layer of structure. Even those who don’t need written recipes memorize them, because we autistic people often end up remembering reams of information anyway.

Bread pudding with cherries in the pan
Bread pudding with cherries – a dish with a soft yet firm, chewy texture that pleases many autistic people. (Photo mine, November 2017)

There is a lot of tasty food in autistic kitchens. These habits in cooking do lead to lots of delicious-sounding things. On the autistic food group I am in on social media, many people post lovely-looking meals; some of my autistic friends are among the best cooks I’ve met. I hope, someday, to see several cookbooks by autistic people on the shelves of every bookstore. Not just to share the delicious food we make, but also a little bit about how we make it. As I will explain in the next post, I think everyone can learn from autistic cooks.

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