Things You Can Learn From Autistic Cooks

This is the third post in a three-part series; you can read Part One here and Part Two here.

I am not a big believer in specific rules around cooking or what is proper. In these pages, I have called some of these rules “bullshit.” Cooking is great, but cooking is also work, and cooking is an intense experience. Sometimes, you do not have the time, money, resources, energy, space, or patience to follow everything to a T. No one has this 100% of the time. So you have to cook in your own ways, on your own terms. There is nothing wrong with that – but food media will tell you so.

As an autistic person, I find that many autistic people are better at knowing how to navigate these realities – and are not afraid to do so. We already have to navigate a whole, messy world – and food is one part of that. I think everyone, though, can benefit from some of these tricks, autistic or not. So, here are six things you can learn from autistic cooks – across the spectrums of autism and cooking habits.

cabinet of spices
A cabinet of spices. (Photo public domain)

1. Be very honest about what you can and cannot do in the kitchen.  Autistic cooks are often quite forthright about the skills they lack or find exceedingly difficult – whether it be because of common motor coordination or sensory issues or the things anyone might find tricky. While it can be good to build an ability to do something, I think there is a lesson here for everyone. It’s okay to know what you cannot do … and move on.

It can be disappointing to admit that you cannot do something, or cannot do something easily. However, this does not make you less capable or less good of a cook. No one person can do everything, and it is perfectly okay to work with certain bounds or to not do certain things. Honesty can make cooking a far more enjoyable experience.

As an example: my motor coordination is not fine enough to easily fold in egg whites into a batter, so I tend to avoid these recipes.

2. Allow yourself the time you actually need, not what you think other people expect you to need. Many autistic people are forthright about the fact that things can take more time for us – for me, it’s chopping; for others, it might be gathering ingredients or preparing various implements. We often discuss how inadequate suggested preparation time in recipes can be. We also plan more time to cook. I suggest that everyone do this – you know best how long things take for you. The suggested preparation times in books are not a dictum on your ability to cook. Give yourself lots of time, and feel no guilt.

3. Prepared ingredients are good. Many autistic people rely heavily on prepared, processed ingredients like store-chopped onions, frozen peas, packaged cooked beets, and certain kinds of mixes. These ingredients help many who struggle with the executive function of cooking, and also help those who take a bit more time in the kitchen. In addition, these ingredients’ predictability are comforting and even enjoyable by many autistic people. Many non-autistic cook shun these ingredients as short-cuts.

Yes, the original ingredients are different and in some cases taste better or are more predictable. However, a prepared ingredient can mean the difference between cooking and not cooking, or having the time to cook, or being able to cook something you want to make. They also save a lot of time and energy. I think everyone should be more honest and open about using these ingredients. As Rachel Laudan notes, we need “culinary modernism.”

Besides, many well-known chefs and food writers now make recipes that involve these ingredients and take advantage of their specific characteristics – Nadiya Hussain is particularly adept in this regard.

4. There’s nothing wrong with repetition or relying heavily on a few things. Most autistic people like repetition in some form or some shape. Food is an obvious example. Many autistic cooks, including myself, make extensive use of leftovers – dinner one day can also be lunch for the next two days. For some people, that would be dinner for two days as well. Many other people do not handle repetition in their food well – but I have to say, the repetition does make meal planning a lot easier. It is also less time-consuming (you cook once) and expensive.

Many autistic people – and for times in my life, including me – also rely heavily on a few foods. For some people, these foods are known quantities that do not introduce new things that can be overwhelming. For others, these foods do not require a huge amount of cognitive function to make. Many non-autistic people (like my partner) rely on certain dishes or foods, but it seems to be much more common among autistic people. This practice, I think, is good. It takes a lot of the cognitive work out of everyday, non-celebratory cooking – and is far easier for grocery shopping too. If you are just starting off cooking, or find cooking difficult, I think finding a few “reliable” dishes is a good idea. Two of mine for a long time were toast with spinach and eggs, and lentils and okra. (I do not eat the latter very much anymore – my partner despises okra.)

Some of you may have seen the terms “same foods” and “safe foods” bandied about. A “same food” is a food that an autistic person relies very heavily on – sometimes for dozens of meals in a row, a “safe food” is one that can always be consumed. I find a lot of the discourse in the autism community about “same foods” and “safe foods” absolutely cringe-inducing.  I also think that this discourse represents a minority experience, and is often rooted in people using autism as an excuse to feel entitled to other people’s labor, time, and work. As an autistic person, I find this infuriating.

The lesson here is about repetition as a concept, and reliability as a concept, but also being mindful of not being entitled to other people’s labor, time, or work. The vast majority of autistic people find regularity without that entitlement. Please do so too, non-autistic readers.

5. Substitutions are an art, not a cop-out. Many autistic people have sensory or taste aversions to certain foods: basically, eating these foods can be a painful, highly distressing experience. (To the point where many autistic people can handle an emergency better than they can handle a surprise encounter with certain foods.) As a result, autistic people often make substitutions when cooking.

Many people think substitutions are a cop-out. I disagree. Knowing how to replace something to imitate a flavor or make a similarly delicious dish is a tricky task that is as much a creative exercise as anything else. You can also find delicious new ways of doing things by doing so. Autistic cooking discussions endorse and support substitution – and I think we all should take a page when we talk about food and cooking. Substitutions are not a less-than!

A few years ago, I made a substitution cheat sheet for the blog – my examination of autistic cooking has made me realize that perhaps it needs expansion.

I want to give a special shout-out to Ruby Tandoh here, whose new book, Cook As You Are, contains substitution advice for every single recipe. I know she has discussed food and worked with autistic and other disabled cooks in the past (including me!), and I hope she kicks off a new trend of everyone joining us in appreciating the art of substitution.

6. Recognize cooking as cognitive work. Cooking takes thought, and not just in deciding what to make: one has to keep an eye out for several things happening at the same time, from making sure the water is still boiling to chopping vegetables to ensuring the rice cooks properly. These things all take energy to monitor – even if you do not notice it. Autistic people more readily acknowledge the attention and thinking that any cooking takes. I think everyone – and especially those who rely on others to cook for them – should do the same.

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.

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.