How to Eat an Elephant
When people talk about autistics and the foods we eat, the go-to explanation for pickiness is sensory issues. This is a valid point but is only one element of what impacts the dietary preferences of autistic people.
Yes, flavors are different for us. They can be more, or less, intense. This alteration in intensity can be different from one flavor to the next. Textures can be either soothing or profoundly irritating.
For me, a decent corn chip has to have the right crunch and not dissolve too quickly. The thickness of the corn chip matters, as does the amount of salt, and any other ingredients you can think of will also play a role.
One corn chip might be a glorious experience on its own. Another corn chip might be completely awful no matter what you do to try to dress it up and make it better. Thinner corn chips are better than thicker corn chips, etc.
Other autistic people might have completely different and equally powerful corn chip preferences, or many don’t like corn chips at all. Beyond the sensory experience of food, however, there lies entire other worlds of neurological difference that can, in some cases, become even more of a factor in why an autistic person will reject certain foods.
Dyspraxia and Executive Function
Dyspraxia and executive function, in relation to food, are often mentioned when speaking of the process of preparing food.
I recently learned that I am not the only autistic person who struggles to butter bread, for example. The knife almost always goes through the bread, and it turns out the butter is still somehow on the knife.
This is dyspraxia, a neurological problem which impacts fine and/or gross motor coordination. My dyspraxia centers on fine motor skill and doesn’t impact gross motor skills at all.
For me, I did horse vaulting as a child, and can run a high beam over a bridge at nearly a sprint without a moments hesitation and without a mistake, but ask me to walk from one room to the other with a cup of water and the cup itself, not just the water, could end up on the floor.
Other autistic people may have completely different presentations of dyspraxia, or no dyspraxia at all. You won’t know from looking at them or talking to them.
Executive function difficulty causes a number of other problems for home cooking. Executive function allows people to make, remember, and follow through on plans with ease. When this system isn’t working as it should, establishing and following through on a multi-step process like cooking can be exhausting unless a clearly-defined and frequently-practiced system and process has already been established.
Then, if anything gets in the way or changes what is required in this process, it can lead to confusion and distress.
Even switching from one established process to another unexpectedly can cause distress if it was required spontaneously, because the transition from one process to another is its own new process.
A meal with a single dish can easily go awry. Maybe I forget what step I’m on and dump ingredients together at the wrong time. Maybe I turn on the wrong burner. A meal consisting of more than one dish becomes a logistical puzzle beyond my capacity.
At least one dish WILL be burned, and at least one dish WILL be cold by the time the final dish is done, and the final dish will most likely be done improperly due to fatigue. Even boxed noodles can be a problem.
I used to contend with this by just letting things fall on the floor to save me the stress of trying to catch them, and by yelling obscenities. I no longer live alone and these are no longer options.
Lets say, for an improbable hypothetical, that I manage to cook a meal, and that the meal comes out delicious and wonderful, and there are no sensory problems with the food whatsoever (haha, oh such a beautiful fiction).
This hypothetical leads me to the point of this article, which is how dyspraxia and executive function difficulties work together to interfere with the process of actually EATING the food.
Eating an Elephant
“How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.” What if this adage represented the feeling provoked when looking at every single plate? What if separating something into bites, and then chewing and swallowing those bites, were each in themselves the proverbial elephant? How do I eat this toast? How do I eat this carrot?
I subsist almost entirely on prepackaged foods, which come in already-established and separated bite-sized pieces.
I noticed this trend about four years ago, and it occurred to me that the process of taking bites of food was arduous because I never took quite the right size bite, and if the size and shape of one bite is different than the bite which preceded it, then with each new bite arises a new executive function dilemma.
How will I chew this particular bite? Forget about the food I invariably drop on my shirt and get all over my hands (I had to stir my spaghetti with my hands until I was fifteen because if I tried to use a fork it all just ended up falling off the plate).
How am I going to eat this so that I can actually swallow it without choking? How do I move it while it’s in my mouth to chew it so I don’t bite the inside of my mouth?
For most people, these things are automated, but for me, the more different two bites are, the more executive function labor I’m putting into the process of eating.
If the bites are all exactly the same shape, size, density, flavor, and texture, then I can establish a system (and I do), where the food follows the same path through my mouth and between my teeth with every bite.
By repeating the same process over and over, I no longer am taxing my executive capabilities, and I can relax and enjoy the food I’m eating.
So why not just take bites that are all the same size and shape?
Because I can’t.
Because of dyspraxia, I can’t accurately and intentionally design how big each bite is that I’m taking.
I don’t know how big the bite is until it’s too late. Until my mouth is either searching to find the tiny bite of food I just took, or is struggling to manage the giant bite of food I just took.
Only after the executive function demands become taxing am I even able to tell how big or small of a bite I’ve taken.
Why can’t I just cut it into pieces of equal size? Well, dyspraxia also affects my hands. I’m perpetually dropping things. You should see my handwriting. It’s really quite a thing to witness. So, I don’t cut it into equal size pieces because I can’t do that.
Adding to the Load
Now think through all of this and realize that people want to socialize over food. People want to use loud voices while I’m eating the not-quite-ok taste and texture of foods that I have to concentrate to bite and chew and swallow.
Potato chips are starting to seem really good. It’s starting to be a situation that calls for having a food that you know you can eat every single day without any of that stress. Something reliable.
It sounds like there are far more reasons why it’s important to respect a person’s samefood, especially your own samefood, than just sensory agony (not that that isn’t, on its own, a huge thing, because it is).
Samefoods are more than comfort foods.
Writer CL Lynch explains samefoods:
The term “samefood” refers to the autistic tendency to eat the same food very frequently or even exclusively for days, weeks, even months at a time.
Samefood can be used as a noun or a verb. For example:
“Sour cream and onion chips are my samefood right now.”
“I don’t usuallysamefood much, but this past week I can’t stop eating spicy ramen.”
A samefood often needs to be prepared in a very specific way, eaten in a ritualistic manner, or may only be a specific brand.
Anything outside of these criteria is Not Right and does not satisfy the samefood need.
It is considered upsetting and tragic when someone else in the household eats your samefood without consulting you, or if you ask someone to buy you a particular brand and they bring home a different one instead.
To Autistics: Enjoy your same foods and take it easy on yourself.
To our allies: Encourage your autistic friends and family to embrace their samefood for the peace it gives them.
No two samefoods are alike. Each autistic person has different needs surrounding foods that come from a myriad of different neurological realities. This might be the only food that they can both eat and enjoy.
And, some of us do talk quite a bit, but… if we’re not talking over a meal, sometimes (not always) we might just need the space to not have to follow a conversation right then.
There is a lot going on.