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Autistic Sensory Sensitivity on Campus, Part Five: Food and Cooking

In this series, autistic STEM grad student Patrick Dwyer takes a deep dive into sensory sensitivity on campus. These blogs define, explorecontextualize, and provide suggestions for dealing with campus issues that arise from a variety of sensory challenges. Part five addresses sensory challenges and cooking. Additionally, if you’d like to take a look at Patrick’s menu and how he organizes his cooking for the week, scroll to the end of the post to see his menu–thanks for sharing, Patrick!

Do you have access to a kitchen, but find that you rarely use it? Do you always end up getting take-out, or do you find yourself eating the same foods repeatedly, day after day?

If you answered yes, this post is for you. I’m not going to try to teach you how to cook, or how to read a recipe – we don’t have time for that, and the Internet is already filled with plenty of general cooking advice if you need it. Instead, this post is going to discuss some of the reasons that autistic people can be particularly prone to eating limited, restricted diets. I’ll then share my solution to the problem of limited diets, which is centered around the idea of a food routine.

To be fair, it’s not like autistic people are the only ones who can struggle with cooking, especially in college. Lots of neurotypicals students struggle as well, either because they can’t find the time to cook or because they never learned how to cook independently when they were kids. However, we do face some extra challenges.

Different individuals differ widely in how many taste receptors they have – with some having more than a hundred times as many as others.

Sensory Sensitivity

Sensory sensitivity is undoubtedly a huge extra challenge for many of us. My taste sensitivities used to be so bad that there were only a handful of foods I could eat, most of which were basic, simple things rather than dishes combining many ingredients. That’s not particularly unusual, I think – I know other autistic people who also have, or have had, horrible taste sensitivities.

I think it’s interesting, and a bit startling, to realize just how much inter-individual variability there probably is in the human sense of taste. Ordinarily, I tend to think that autistic people’s experiences of sensory distress are caused by differences in how our brains process and attend to sensory stimuli – and those brain-based sensory experiences can already be very real and very unpleasant! However, taste is a somewhat odd sense. Different individuals differ widely in how many taste receptors they have – with some having more than a hundred times as many as others (Miller, 1988). Thus, not only might different people’s brains process and attend to taste stimuli in different ways, but the actual sensory inputs entering the brain may be very different across different people.

Bottom line: if you really struggle to eat different foods, it’s probably not “picky eating” but might be an entirely natural consequence of how you experience the sensation of eating food. Your sensory experiences around food might be very unlike those of other people.

Desire for Sameness, Routine

We live in unpredictable worlds. It can be extremely stressful to cope with all the unexpected changes and contingencies that can arise on any given day, as we leave whatever space is under our direct control and go out into the wider world.

When we finally get back into our safe zone at the end of our day, it’s natural to leap straight into a comforting routine. It can be reassuring to put the uncertainty of the world behind us and to follow a sequence of familiar actions with predictable and familiar consequences. One doesn’t necessarily have to do any of this consciously – it can simply happen as we naturally do what is most comfortable, and what is comfortable often happens to be what is familiar.

To be clear, I’m not at all trying to counsel against routine. In fact, I probably live an exceptionally routinized, unadventurous life, and I’m perfectly content with that. Why would I want to live another way, when I enjoy living a life of routine?

That being said, routine can be a bit problematic when it comes to eating well. If my routine includes eating some familiar thing, I’ll be tempted to go ahead and just eat that familiar thing. The alternative, after all, might be trying to learn to make a whole new dish, having to check that I have all the ingredients – and maybe having to run to the grocery store if I don’t, then fretting about whether or not the dish will turn out well, and wondering the whole time whether I’ll even like it or not. Much simpler to stick with the familiar.

But, if I eat the familiar thing tonight, and tomorrow, and again the day after, and the day after that, and so forth, there’s obviously a problem developing. We need some kind of solution that allows us to retain the comfort of routine without the negative side-effect of unhealthy, restricted eating.

My Solution

Fortunately, I do have a solution that works well for me. If you, like me, enjoy the comfort of a routine, you may find my solution useful. Even if you don’t, let me know what you think!

I like having a routine, so rather than making the routine out to be nothing more than a problem, I try to use it as the solution. I’ve based my routine around a bunch of different foods that I can eat and that are spread across different food groups. (This nutritional spread certainly doesn’t have to be perfect – I am not, by any definition, a health nut! Don’t set unrealistic goals for yourself. As long as you have a reasonably broad selection, it’s likely you’ll be getting enough variety, and you can always check in with your doctor if you have a concern.)

Anyway, I took these foods and built up a calendar around them. I eat this thing on one day, and I eat that thing on some other day, and so forth. After a little while, the calendar resets and the routine continues.

My routine includes recipes that I’m comfortable with, so making them is easy. It’s familiar, and therefore not stressful.

It’s often difficult to find time to cook on certain days, but that’s okay. I do most of my “real” cooking on the weekends, when I have more free time, and then I eat leftovers during the weekdays. Most recipes are based on the assumption that you’re cooking for a traditional family, so if you’re just cooking for yourself, you should have plenty of leftovers. Furthermore, I sometimes reheat frozen food at the very end of the week, when I’ve run out of leftovers. (You could get take-out at the end of the week instead, if you prefer.)

Because my cooking is all based on a routine cycle, it’s easy for me to buy groceries. I do it once each week, and I keep different lists of all the basic supplies of perishable foods I’ll need for the week’s cooking, depending on where I am in my cycle. I just have to add non-perishable items to the list when I use them up so that I remember to get more. I organize my grocery list based on the layout of the grocery store, so it’s easy to grab everything.

One important point: your routine should not just include cooking, but also clean-up. Not only do unwashed dishes and random messes tend to irritate any apartment-mates you might have, but ever-growing messes can be a good way of deterring yourself from cooking. So make sure you clean things up pretty soon after you are done with them!

Introducing the Routine

I didn’t make up my entire cooking routine from scratch – in fact, I’m still tweaking it and adding things. It would probably be pretty demanding to build everything up all at once, so please don’t try to create a fully-fledged, complicated routine from nothing! Instead, I would suggest taking it slowly. You could start with foods you’re already familiar with and that you know how to make, covering various food groups, and then you could try learning how to cook new foods once you’re comfortable with that routine.

I also think it’s good to challenge yourself and try new things, or even re-try old things. My taste sensitivities are actually a lot better than they once were: fortunately, they became less serious with age. There are numerous foods I can happily eat now that I would have hated before. It’s important to add these in; variety is vital. Even if you already eat foods covering a variety of food groups, you’ll also want to have a variety of foods from each group.

When you do want to add a new recipe, you should read through the recipe before you start. First, check to see whether you have all the ingredients. Then, looking carefully through the steps of the recipe, imagine yourself doing everything. Do you know what all the terms mean? If not, look them up. If it tells you to bring water to a boil, you want to be able to imagine yourself doing everything you will need to do to bring water to a boil. Do you have all the equipment and implements you need?

I sometimes find it can be helpful to have cookbooks, since they can be more physically salient than Internet recipes. There are even some nice introductory cookbooks that are designed for beginners.

Conclusion

I hope my solution is useful to you. I do recognize that it is based on the assumption that you (like me) find familiar routines comforting. If you crave excitement, adventure, and the unfamiliar, you may need a different solution.

However, whatever solution you end up using, I do think that cooking is a vital skill. Like I said, I’m no health nut, and you won’t catch me demanding nutritional perfection or challenging you to eat whatever foods count as the latest health fads. That’s a little too extreme for me. But I do think everyone should have the ability to make a good, home-cooked meal.

What do you think? Could my method work for you? Or do you have your own method? If you have another solution, I’m interested in hearing more about it! Please add your comments.

Additional Note

Eating disorders. Researchers are increasingly becoming aware that many autistic people can have eating disorders (Westwood & Tchanturia, 2017). Anorexia, in particular, seems to be common. Eating disorders are well beyond the scope of this post, but they are definitely not rational or healthy. If you think you might have an eating disorder, you should seek professional help right away, even if seems difficult. Your college’s counselling services office is probably an excellent place to start. I’m sorry to provide so little information, because I know how important eating disorders are, but at the same time I’m conscious of not having the expertise necessary to address them properly.

References:

Miller, I. J. (1988). Human taste bud density across adult age groups. Journal of Gerontology, 43(1), B26-B30. https://doi.org/10.1093/geronj/43.1.M26

Westwood, H., & Tchanturia, K. (2017). Autism spectrum disorder in anorexia nervosa: An updated literature review. Current Psychiatry Reports, 19(7), 41. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11920-017-0791-9

Saturday Brunch

I usually buy groceries on Saturdays, and then I make pancakes and/or French toast. I also bake some kind of treat that I can munch on gradually over the week (e.g., a homemade almond cake, homemade almond biscotti – you may notice that I have a fondness for anything with almonds).

Saturday Dinner

I make a dish with meat. The dish varies from week to week, but one favorite is shrimp with couscous and diced tomatoes. I also have some salad – I make my salads with romaine lettuce, spinach, cherry tomatoes, store-bought dressing, and homemade croutons – and/or some strawberries, sliced and served in yogurt.

Sunday Brunch

I eat leftover pancakes and/or French toast.

Sunday Dinner

I make a homemade pizza. I also have more strawberries & yogurt and/or salad.

Weekday Mornings

I eat remaining leftover pancakes and/or French toast, then I move on to munching on cereal. (For some reason I’ve never liked eggs or meat at breakfast, but this doesn’t mean you should necessarily follow my example.)

Weekday Lunches

I have some bananas early in the week, then switch over to apples by the end of the week (because apples keep better). I also have some of my usually-almond-flavoured treats and some salad.

Weekday Dinners

Earlier in the week I eat leftover pizza and leftovers from my meat dish, but this often runs out by the end of the week, especially if am eating away from home on any day. Thus, I usually keep on hand some non-perishables that can be made quickly and easily (e.g., pasta, frozen food). Butter chicken is a particular favorite. I also eat salad and/or fruit (after I run out of strawberries, I often have grapefruit) on some weekday dinners.

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Patrick Dwyer

Patrick is an autistic graduate student in the psychology department at UC Davis with a broad interest in helping to ensure that autistic and neurodivergent people can lead fulfilling lives. He plans to use eye-tracking and electrophysiology to explore the heterogeneity of the autism spectrum and different phenotypes of autism, and is particularly interested in studying sensory processing and sensory sensitivities in autism. He has also facilitated peer-support groups for other autistic college students. You can find more of Patrick’s writing on his blog at autisticscholar.com.

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