“Are you going to eat that?” My friend asked, looking at the untouched bowl of miso soup in front of me. I understand why he was doing it. He personally enjoyed the soup, and it wasn’t his intention to embarrass me in front of the group we were with.
However, like so many things that allistic people do that don’t come from a consciously-malicious intention, that is what happened. I gave him the soup to avoid conflict and to avoid wasting it, but I still felt bad that my food preferences had been pointed out.
Food is a challenging part of life for me as an autistic person. My sensory sensitivities make it hard for me to process certain textures of food, particularly if I have to process more than one texture simultaneously. Sometimes, the texture of a solid food and a liquid food that I enjoy separately becomes unbearable simultaneously, which is one of the reasons I can never finish a bowl of soup and why I enjoy ice cream and root beer when served separately, but I am not particularly fond of root beer floats.
Fine motor skills, another one of the seven primary dimensions of autism identified by the Aspergian’s article on what the autism spectrum really means, are another thing that affects what foods I choose to eat.
If I try to go through the motions of eating soup with a soup spoon in the way that most people do, my hands don’t understand what my brain is trying to tell them. Another effect of this is that messy foods like wings, ribs, burritos, and burgers or pizzas with too many toppings scare me.
I was homeschooled growing up and had little social interaction, which got a lot worse when I was a teenager because the homeschooling group my family was in had few opportunities for teenagers to socialize. When I was seventeen, my parents took me to a statewide homeschooling conference, and during that conference I went to get food with two other teenage boys.
They took me to a Baja Fresh where they got burritos and convinced me to get one myself when I was thinking of ordering a quesadilla instead. I ordered a burrito and ended up making a mess when I tried to eat it.
They made fun of me and made me promise to finish the burrito fillings that had fallen out into a to-go box, a promise that I later broke. Since then, I have blocked them on Facebook, and have never eaten another burrito, instead ordering other things like bowls or quesadillas whenever I go to a Mexican restaurant.
Here are some ways to be better towards autistic adults and teenagers in your lives who have food aversions (or anyone that age who does, because you never know who’s autistic; and when I was seventeen, I didn’t know it myself).
- Don’t say “picky eater” or “fussy eater” unless they describe themselves that way first. While not everyone with a food aversion is uncomfortable with those terms, I find them to be infantilizing because they are typically associated with children, and they also imply that it is a choice, while in my case, there are some foods for which it is not.
- Don’t point it out. If you’re eating with someone and notice them picking tomatoes off a burger, not eating one of their side dishes, or eating pizza with a knife and fork, keep your opinions and observations to yourself and don’t mention it unless you know the person well enough to know they’re okay with it.
- It’s not funny. For me, jokes about my food aversions are humiliating. Some of us are willing to laugh at ourselves, but wait until we joke about it ourselves to make your own jokes about this kind of thing.
- Don’t try to intervene unless we seek advice. I am scared of hearing things like “don’t knock it til you try it.” The only time that intervention for adult food aversions is necessary is when they prevent someone from eating a healthy, balanced diet, and even then, the intervention should come from a mental health professional, not from a friend or acquaintance sitting across a restaurant table. If you believe that the issue is serious enough that we need professional help (in my case it isn’t), make sure you know us well before providing that advice.
- Don’t force us to justify it or assume we’re allergic. If I order a burger or sandwich with no tomato, it’s because I am uncomfortable with the squishy texture of fresh tomatoes, though I’m fine with tomatoes in things like sauces and pizza. Asking me if I’m allergic forces me to explain highly personal things about myself to someone who has already implied they might be judgmental.
- Understand that it doesn’t define us. I know this is confusing because this is the opposite of what we say about our autism, but it really is true that our preferences about food don’t shape who we are. My passion for debate theory, the deep affection I feel to the few friends I trust, and the elaborate and systematic ways I analyze philosophical issues have nothing to do with what foods I choose not to eat.
- Don’t assume our motivations. If I have trouble eating certain foods from a particular culture’s cuisine, it has nothing to do with what I think of that culture– my avoidance of French onion soup is equal to my avoidance of Chinese hot and sour soup.