I’m a so-called “picky eater,” like many autistic people.
Nowadays, as an adult, this is no problem. I have a system that works for me. I buy foods I like, prepare them, and eat them. I do try to cover a variety of food groups and so on, but I am not going to agonize over not being able to stomach some particular food or another – I’ll just avoid it.1
This is a bit different from the situation early in my childhood. Today, I have control over what I eat. Back then, I did not.
When I didn’t have that control – when I had others around me insisting that I should eat foods that caused me sensory distress – I ended up becoming anxious about new and unfamiliar foods. I knew that I’d most likely hate anything new, so I expected to hate everything new. It would have greatly astonished child-me to learn that something new was actually palatable. When I tried to put a new food in my mouth, I focused all my attention on it, expecting and dreading an awful taste. Unsurprisingly, with all that focus, I would usually find some strange and unpleasant taste somewhere in an initial bite – leading me to, at least initially, insist that I hated the food. I wouldn’t willingly eat it, no matter how hungry I was.
This ended up creating a bit of a problem, because my parents and others could see that my reactions to the new foods were technically becoming irrational – I would reject them without giving them a proper chance. This initially and understandably led to the conclusion that I had to be forced to try new things, even if I didn’t want to. This method sometimes even worked: for example, I learned through this method that I liked pizza. However, the method was a painfully slow one: many stressful instances of presenting a new food and demanding that I should eat it would be required for me to decide it was acceptable. This, in turn, would be stressful for all parties concerned – especially me – and would leave me even more skeptical of new foods than ever, and even more anxious that they would be terrible.
In the end, my parents mostly gave up on the approach of pushing me to try new things. First, they gave up on sending me to noisy restaurants, because they could see that was painful for me. Then, they gradually gave up on the idea that I should sometimes be forced to eat things I disliked, because they saw that I had more important stresses in my life to deal with and that the food stress was unnecessary and unhelpful.
My parents were doing something crucial: they were having empathy for a perspective that differed from their own.
Many people tend to be dismissive of so-called “picky eating.” Lucky people who are fortunate enough to have the wonderful ability to eat a wide variety of foods and derive genuine enjoyment from them are often not merely content to quietly enjoy the manifest advantages this luxury gives them: many of them are utterly convinced that everyone else can and should derive the same pleasure, and that anyone who does not derive that pleasure is fussing/exaggerating/seeking attention/etc. These people thus choose to add injury to insult by insisting on imposing their own preferred lifestyle choices on the rest of the world.
I’ve already admitted that anxiety and fear can play a major role in reinforcing and amplifying the negative sensory experiences associated with food, but:
- Even if driven by anxiety and fear, these negative sensory experiences are still very distressing for the individuals who have them; and
- The anxiety and fear don’t come from nowhere – even before anxiety and fear amplified the negative sensory experience, it was still clearly negative enough to start evoking the anxiety and fear reactions.
This is just one of many areas in which the double empathy problem rears its ugly head: unfortunately, the neurotypical majority is simply not particularly good at understanding and having empathy for the experiences and perspectives of the neurodivergent.
My parents eventually came to understand something simple and crucial: my disgust with certain foods was not fussing or exaggerating. I would go to any and all lengths (if necessary, simply not eating) in order to avoid a particularly aversive food. It would have been far, far simpler for me to just eat the foods I hated. I just could not do it – not without significant distress and nausea. What possible motive could I have for faking or exaggerating this reaction? If I could have derived enjoyment from food the way others could, I certainly would have!
Is there a better approach?
So, what could we do better in order to prevent this fear and distress? It’s a tricky question. Remember, while I’m an adult now and I now understand things like nutrition, this was back when I was a young kid: I would not have eaten a healthy diet without some constraints being applied! Indeed, there are some autistic children who would essentially just eat one preferred thing, and nothing else, if left to choose their own diet.
This is much easier for me to say than for parents of autistic kids to do, but I do think there is some middle ground here: a way in which one could expose autistic kids to new foods in a gentle, unforced way.
Crucially, the mealtime shouldn’t become an anxiety-provoking power struggle: if there is some way of presenting a new food that will make it a positive experience, this should be the goal. I think it is absolutely essential to avoid authoritarianism or shows of dominance that will make the experience more negative and amplify the distress/anxiety/fear spiral. If parents can offer new things without forcing anyone – through gentle encouragement or even bribery – that would certainly be preferable. I would certainly urge parents of kids with taste sensory sensitivities to apply the minimum of coercion strictly necessary for healthy eating.
This sometimes means making personal sacrifices. My parents like some foods that I simply hate and will not eat. To the extent that we were having family meals where everyone eats the same thing, this meant they couldn’t derive pleasure from those foods. Furthermore, I’m sure my mother found it upsetting to put energy and time into preparing food only for me to despise it. I do recognize and regret these points (although, as noted above, it’s important to remember that I’m not responsible for having my sensory experiences and certainly I have no reason to feel guilty for having them).
I would also suggest that parents shouldn’t hesitate to get rid the conventional social ritual of the family meal if it becomes a problem. I’ve complained before that neurotypical people are annoyingly inflexible at times, and the neurotypical ritual of the family dinner is definitely one of these cases of stubborn, irritating inflexibility.
One might defend the family dinner on the grounds that it is an important family bonding ritual, but obviously if the family bonding time is stressful and distressing for at least one family member, that is a serious problem with the family bonding time!
If you one wants to have organized family bonding time, one can do it outside the meal. Nowadays, whenever I visit my parents, my family doesn’t do family meals in any sort of coordinated way, except on major holidays (chiefly Christmas). If some of us are hungry, we eat, and we may or may not happen to be eating the same food or at the same time as someone else. We don’t try to force a social connection in a ritualized way; we simply enjoy spending time with one another when, naturally and spontaneously, it feels like a good time to do so.
If everyone in a particular family enjoys family dinners, that’s obviously fine. However, if for one or more family members they end up adding social stress on top of sensory distress, and if they end up making the social experience of spending time with family one that is tied to experiences of sensory fear and distress, then I hardly see how they could be justified or worthwhile.
Abandoning the family meal also presents an opportunity to teach children valuable cooking and baking skills that will prepare them well for living independently. Instead of children passively waiting for an adult to provide food, they could gradually learn to prepare their own food when they need to eat.
Finally, I won’t speak to this at length, but I would also of course avoid some of the strange exclusion diets parents put their autistic children on in attempts to cure autism.
First of all, the diets won’t cure autism. Autism per se is not a biomedical condition (though it can co-occur with or be explained by biomedical conditions), so it doesn’t even make sense to me to suggest these diets would work differently on autistic people in general than on anyone else. I haven’t seen any convincing scholarly evidence that would suggest the diets can have substantial benefits for autistic children – and I would hardly describe curing autism as a benefit, in any case.
The diets also add further complications in what may already be a tricky struggle for someone who might experience sensory distress in mealtimes to eat a balanced diet.
Overall, as a general rule, I tend to think that variety and balance are good things when it comes to diet. If somebody has coeliac disease, they obviously shouldn’t eat gluten, but absent some biomedical condition, I feel more comfortable with the idea of a balanced diet than an exclusion diet.
Of course, I’m not a dietician or any sort of professional in this area, so don’t take this as formal advice.
It would be remiss of me not to particularly thank Zach Houghton, a roommate who is a very interesting conversationalist and valued occasional provider of excellent homemade cookies, for helping to work through and develop the thoughts presented in this post.