I want you to imagine that you are a kid once again, maybe ten or eleven years old. You are sitting down in the evening with your family for dinner. The table is set, and your parents bring out what will be tonight’s entree: a cut of cold, raw chicken breast. It’s slimy pink mass slides onto the plate in front of you, and soon after your whole family is chowing down on the raw cuts of meat. You can’t stand to even watch anyone else eat the raw chicken, let alone fathom yourself choking it down. Yet, despite the very real disgust and aversion you feel towards the raw chicken breast, somehow it’s you who are strange for not wanting to eat it. Maybe you’re called “picky” or told that you simply need to and just learn to enjoy raw chicken like everyone else. Maybe you go hungry every night at dinner because the only thing being served are items as aversive as the cuts of raw chicken.
A slab of raw chicken sounds completely viscerally repulsive, doesn’t it? It’s not something that you simply “don’t like,” it’s something that you would actually have a physical negative reaction if you were ever try to eat it. I’m using this analogy to demonstrate what it’s like for a lot of autistic people who have sensory aversions to many common foods.
I’m not alone in the autism world in that I have a really hard time with food. There are very few things that I can eat, as my sensory system is tuned differently than most other people’s, and so I find many common foods to be just as repulsive as a slab of raw chicken. This isn’t a matter of simply “not liking” certain foods. I have a strong sensory aversion to most foods.
Before we get any farther, I’d like to make it clear that I didn’t make up the raw chicken analogy. That distinction goes to Cynthia from the amazing Musings of an Aspie blog, where in this post she uses the analogy in the same way I am here to demonstrate the difference between a sensory aversion and simply disliking something. I highly recommend said blog post.
But here I’d like to re-state the point that there is a distinct difference between having a sensory aversion to a food and simply disliking a food. You see, there is a very limited number of different food items that I can tolerate eating. However, this is not simply because I’m a “picky eater” and only dislike these food items. No, I have an aversion to these foods because I am a sensory eater. My limited diet is due to the fact that, because of my atypical sensory system, many common foods are just as repulsive, on a very deep visceral level, as that slab of raw chicken.
This is something that I see a lot of people getting wrong all the time. They might think that my limited diet is due to me simply being too stubborn or to picky or whatever else when instead it is due to a specific difference in how I process sensory input. It’s not that I simply dislike most foods or refuse to try most foods, it’s that I literally have a biological, sensory based reaction to most foods. I am not a picky eater. I eat based on what fits my sensory profile. I am a sensory eater.
As stated above, I am certainly not the only one in this regard, in fact sensory food sensitivities are a fairly “trademark” part of autism. If you’re autistic you should probably know this, and if you’re a parent of an autistic kid you should also probably know this. You should know that typical parenting advice for picky eaters like “keep serving it until they like it” doesn’t work on autistic kids. Yes, we may starve before eat non-sensory friendly food because it’s not picky eating, it’s sensory eating. (There’s my ProTip for the day).
For me, like many autistic people, how something feels in my mouth is much more important than taste or flavor. The texture, temperature, and consistency has to be within a very narrow range or else my brain will “reject it” on a sensory basis. (I hope that makes some sense, I’m having trouble figuring out how to explain this to readers who may not have the same sensory experience as I do). For some autistic people their greatest problem with food comes from smell. It turns out the inside of your mouth is covered with smell receptors, and so for many autistic people a lot of food gives them olfactory sensory overload because it’s too smelly in their mouth. I’m actually not particularly sensitive to smell so I don’t have this exact problem, but I’ve heard lots of autistic people bring this up as an issue.
Because of my sensory profile, there are, maybe if you stretch the definition of what is a separate food, two dozen things I can eat. I cannot do any sort of red meat, the texture and consistency is not right. I eat a lot of chicken, but pretty much only in nugget or strip form because if it’s not deep fried and/or packed together then the meat is too slimy or of the wrong consistency, which is a no-no. I’ll eat fish if it’s cooked right, I like fish n’ chips and salmon fillets, but the fillets have to be done in such a way that it’s firm. I like other kinds of seafood like shrimp, crab, and lobster, all right out of the shell, I don’t tend to have sensory issues with crustacean meat. Seafood is my favorite type of food because I can more of it than I can other types of food. I can’t do any type of cooked vegetable, the consistency causes problems, but I do like crunchy vegetables like celery, carrots, etc. There are some fruits I enjoy like firm apples and grapes and others I can’t eat due to consistency issues like strawberries or pineapple. I’ll eat some pasta, but pasta is limited by the sauce people put on it, so that’s pretty much just mac n’ cheese or some sort of alfredo. I’ll do cheese pizza, but only cheese pizza. Also, I like bread. At thanksgiving I pretty much only eat rolls. The reason, I think, that I generally do processed foods is because they are, by design, consistent, and I need consistency in what I’m eating.
So yes, there it is, my entire diet in one paragraph. I’m actually very proud of all the things on this list, because it’s taken me almost eighteen years of a lot of anxiety and painful trials to figure out everything to fill out this list with. There was a time when I could count on one hand everything I would eat. I subsisted pretty much entirely on mac n’ cheese and french fries. So, despite the comments people make to me about how my diet is limited, or I eat the same thing for every meal, or whatever else, just know that I’m proud of myself for finding something I can eat to fill out every group on the food pyramid, because that by itself was a monumental feat and I honestly consider it one of my greatest accomplishments. I am that impaired when it comes to food and eating.
That’s why it makes me incredibly sad, frustrated, and even angry to hear a lot of the things some people say to me about my diet as a sensory eater. When people make comments to me about “you don’t know what you’re missing” or “you’d like it if you’d just try it” or “I wish you’d just eat” or “your life would be so much better if you’d eat more foods” it makes me feel very frustrated because it’s already taken my quite literally my whole life to get to where I am now. I can not tolerate a lot of foods because of my sensory profile and I’d rather people just accept that this is a limitation for me instead of making comments like the above every time we go to eat something. I assure you I am NOT missing out because I won’t eat a steak. And, for the record, I am perfectly fine with eating the same or similar things every day. It really does not bother me, and in fact I prefer it because the similarity is comforting.
Also, it makes me feel incredibly left out when people say things like “well I’d like to eat here, but Quincy won’t eat anything there, so I guess we won’t go.” Or when I ask someone what they want to eat, and they reply back with “don’t ask me, you’re the one who’s hard to feed!” It makes me feel sort of disappointed in myself and excluded when people make comments about how “difficult” I am with food. Please, just pick something and I’ll make it work if not now then later, but do not make offhand comments about what I can and can’t eat or how “hard” it is to find food for me. Please.
Apologies for that personal note at the end, this blog is an important means of communication for me and so I wanted to make my frustrations clear. However, biggest thing I want anyone who reads this to pull out of this article is that picky eating is not the same as sensory eating, and as with most things, it’s best to work with the autistic person within their sensory profile rather than against them to try to get them to eat the foods they find repulsive.