Many people on the autism spectrum are what would be considered picky eaters. Whether it is the taste or texture, foods that touch, or are mixed, or where a food came from, there remains the fact that it can be a challenge to find suitable foods for those with autism.
Often what others consider to be socially acceptable norms around food can create anxiety or even a hostile environment for people with autism and food issues. One example would be the idea that children should eat what is put in front of them.
For a child who truly feels they are being attacked or even poisoned by foods that others consider typical, especially for a child who struggles to express themselves, even the idea of eating can become an activity fraught with severe anxiety. If not dealt with in a sensitive and caring way by those in charge of them, food may quickly become a lifelong battle for the person.
For myself, food is to this day the source of much anxiety, and many embarrassing meltdowns. Potlucks and group meals, which many consider to be a necessary part of social situations, are often the cause of nightmares. Traveling and having to eat away from home often lead to situations where I am hungry, overwhelmed, and unable to accept help from others. During these moments, I am rarely able to speak, and unable to help myself.
I have been told that when typical people are hungry enough, they will eat just about anything. As an autistic, I can say that this just isn’t true for me. The hungrier I am, the more rigid and inflexible I become around food. Many foods that I would eat had I stuck to my normal routine are impossible to consider when I am hungry. Just about any thought of food at that point will bring with it feelings of nausea, and a gagging reflex.
It is not that I am trying to be difficult. This is about no one else but me, and while I might register that other people are around me comparing my response to that of a spoiled toddler, I am locked in my head during these moments, and my ability to think of anything but how hungry I am becomes severely impaired.
There are moments where I am almost guaranteed to struggle with food related issues. These are the times when, if I am unable to avoid them, I would require full support and understanding. They are the situations that would place me in a childlike state, where I would struggle to plan, or cook foods for myself.
This would include:
- Potluck dinners
- Public/Group meals
- Traveling away from home
- Work lunchrooms
There are foods that I am unable to eat due to allergy, sensitivity or intolerance. These would include:
- eggs – severe allergy
- powdered cheese sauce such as found in kraft dinner – severe allergy
- dairy – I am intolerant. I cannot drink milk, but am able to have other dairy in moderation.
- Wheat – I can eat this in moderation, but do have unpleasant reactions if I eat it often
- Soy – very similar to wheat. I can eat this in moderation.
- Caffeine – upsets my stomach, and leaves me shaky and with increased anxiety.
Some foods I have avoided for most of my life because they have such a texture, taste, or smell, that I cannot put them in my mouth without feeling sick. Several of these I cannot even have made in the same place I am in as my response is so strong. These would include:
- mushrooms – especially cooked mushrooms
- salmon or other seafood
- okra, eggplant, or other vegetables that are cooked to have that pasta like texture
Throughout my life there have been some foods that I would depend on when all else seemed unappetizing. My father would try to force me to eat the foods that were made for me, which increased my anxiety if anyone were in the room while I was eating (I would hide the food in the garbage if no one else was around.) My mother was more inclined to try and get me to eat something. I am thankful to her for that understanding.
The most likely foods for me to be able to eat have been:
- mixed cereal for infants (pablum)
- pureed berries
- dark toast with peanut butter and butter
- assorted nuts and seeds
In my experience the most positive way of dealing with the food issues of a person with autism is to find and allow whatever foods that person is able to eat. It may seem unusual for a person to be so limited in their diet, but please be supportive, and please try to understand. We are not choosing this to be difficult, but it is a necessity for our own ability to function at our best.