Autistic Sensory Sensitivity on Campus, Part Six: Food in Dorms & Residence Halls

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 following a dietary routine that supports a healthy variety of foods. Here, Patrick collaborates with Editorial Board Member Claire Barnett on a Q & A about sensory sensitivities and eating in residence halls. 

Patrick Dwyer: What is a meal plan?

Claire Barnett: A meal plan allows you to purchase your meals for the entire semester in bulk at the beginning of that semester. You’ll choose a certain number of meals and pay for them before school even starts, so when it’s time to eat you just swipe your student card. Meal plans can only be used at a specific set of locations, and often at specific times. The locations will include any cafeterias or dining halls on campus, and sometimes also restaurants that are on or around campus. The times you can get your food will be dependent upon your school, but many colleges meal plans are set up so that you can get one meal in every “meal period” (breakfast, lunch, dinner).

PD: What if I want to change meal plans? Can I do that?

CB: Usually you cannot change your meal plan until the semester ends. In some places, you can buy additional meals if you run out, but in others you’re just left to supply your own food when the meals are gone. It’s possible that your school has special exceptions, but if you are concerned about whether you’ll be able to change your plan, you should contact your institution before making a purchase.

PD: Should I worry about buying too many meal credits, or not buying enough of them?

CB: I recommend doing a “test day” at your college, several weeks before school starts. Walk around the campus, find your dormitory, and figure out what buildings your classes are in. Imagine yourself on a normal school day – will you get up early enough to eat breakfast before class, or will you sleep until the last minute? Do you usually get hungry for a big lunch, or do you eat a snack at lunch and get an early dinner? When lunchtime comes, will your class schedule allow you enough time to find a place with food that suits your dietary restrictions and taste palate? This comes down to knowing yourself, and your habits.

PD: Can/should I opt out of the meal plan?

CB: This depends. At some schools, you are required to have a meal plan freshman year. At some, you are supposed to keep your meal plan for all four years. At others, however, the plan isn’t ever required. Definitely check with the dining services office at your specific school to find out what’s required and what isn’t. The question of “should I opt out?” (if given that option) comes down to transportation and dietary funds. Will you have a reliable way of securing three meals a day if you don’t eat on campus? And does that option make financial sense for you?

PD: I have a medical reason not to eat certain foods (e.g., allergies). What should I do? Or what if I can’t be near people eating the food I’m allergic to?

CB: Colleges typically provide alternatives for people with allergies – especially common ones like peanuts or gluten. However, if you have a severe or uncommon allergy, there’s no guarantee that dining hall food will be right for you. That situation might qualify you to have first dibs on the dormitories with kitchens. That way, you can prepare your own food without fear of becoming sick. To explore this option, talk to the disability services office at your school.

PD: I have severe taste sensitivities and can only eat a limited selection of foods. Can I get a special dietary accommodation for that?

CB: Probably not. It’s worth asking, but prepare yourself you receive a “no.” I know from first-hand experience that this can be frustrating. Colleges are pretty understanding of allergies, but taste sensitivity often sounds to them like “picky eater.” And the reality is that the school’s dining hall most likely isn’t going to make a specific dish just for you. Your best option is to find something you can eat and stick with it.

PD: I experience sensory distress in noisy places like cafeterias. How can I get food while living in residence? Am I allowed to get food in the cafeteria and bring it elsewhere?

CB: College cafeterias can definitely be noisy and chaotic. Additionally, depending on the set-up of the space, it may be difficult to find seating without sharing a table with a stranger. My best advice is to check and see if the cafeteria has a second floor or side room. These areas tend to be quieter and less crowded. And generally, it’s just fine to get dining hall food to-go and take it back to your dorm room (or another peaceful spot). I have heard, once, of a college cafeteria where you were supposed to eat everything before you left – but this is definitely not the norm.

PD: Is there anything else I need to know?

CB: Find the grocery nearest your dorm. Even if you buy a meal plan, you may want to pick up a few of your favorite snacks on a regular basis.

PD: In general, what could I do if I run into any other problems or challenges? Are there people I could speak to or get support from?

CB: Dining is something that your Disability Services office can help you with if you have specific dining-related needs. So reach out to them if you’re having difficulty finding or accessing foods you can eat. Before doing so, you may also want to talk through your barrier with a friend, parent, therapist, other medical professional. They can help you identify what dining accommodation you should request to best solve any problem you’re facing.

Questions for Patrick or Claire? Let us know in the comments! You might also like to read more about sensory processing at Patrick’s blog, Autistic Scholar.

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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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