Thursday, September 27, 2018

Rethinking Autism and "Picky Eating"

butterfly in a Planetbox bento lunch
Photo © Melissa | Flickr / Creative Commons
[image: Lunch box with each food type in a different compartment. Foods
include pretzels, jellybeans, raspberries, sliced cucumber, and
whole wheat sandwich bread in a butterfly cutout.] 


Seeking Sara
seekingsara174.wordpress.com

For as long as I can remember, I’ve been ashamed of what I do and don’t eat. The stigma of being a “picky eater” has followed me my whole life, bringing comments (and no small amount of exasperation) from family, friends, wait staff, and strangers.

I’ve recently been examining why I struggle with certain foods, and have come to the same conclusion as I have with much of my post-autism-diagnosis self-exploration: I’m actually incredibly strong, and my experiences are real and valid.

Why am I so “picky”? Well, if you could experience my senses for a few hours, I bet you’d be more understanding, less judgmental, and I’m fairly certain you’d stop using the word “picky” pretty quickly.

Often times, I want desperately to like a food, to be able to order anything at random, or to just eat whatever is put in front of me without hesitation. But for me, food is almost always a relentlessly overpowering experience.

It’s not just taste that’s overwhelming—so are texture, smell, color, consistency, and more. What if I told you certain foods literally hurt to eat? That some trigger vivid memories that are disorientating and distressing? That some foods make me nauseous and panicky? Throw in IBS, general stomach and digestive issues, multiple food allergies and sensitivities, and it’s actually pretty impressive that I eat at all.

Taste


I really struggle to eat bitter, sour, or spicy foods. Remember, all of my sensory input is dialed up and extra-sensitive, so what you consider overwhelming, is likely not the same as what I do. I’m not just being picky, and I’m not overreacting. I really am experiencing things more intensely than most people. What you might find pleasant with just a hint of a kick might feel like an absolute assault on my senses.

Also, my sensory input sometimes seems to go haywire and—for example—a bitter taste might register just like bile to me. No one else eating the same dish is having the problem, but I literally cannot eat another bite because it legitimately reminds me of throwing up.

Texture


Food texture is a huge factor as well. Texture no-gos for me include peaches, coleslaw, celery, Japanese konyaku, and warm peanut butter. I can’t really explain why some of these things are difficult for me, but the sensation of eating them can be so uncomfortable that my jaw locks up. This can be a full-body experience, causing pain, discomfort, chills, headaches, and tics if I’m truly required to eat something.

Too Many Tastes at Once 


Even if I like certain tastes, too many at once is also overwhelming. There are not many meals I order out that don’t include me saying, “I’d like the (meal), but without (list of ingredients). So basically just the (stuff I still want).” The things I take off make the difference between me being physically able to eat the dish, and literally not being able to eat it without melting down or extreme distress.

Conclusion


I debated making a list of all the foods I struggle to eat, but decided against it. Maybe some day I will, but for now, I still struggle with embarrassment from a lifetime of stigma related to what’s difficult or painful for me to eat—and I’ve decided to focus elsewhere.

I’m currently on a journey of self-acceptance and I’m finding it more productive to focus on my “Can Do” list than my “Can’t Do” list. I’ve come a long way in trying new foods, and I’m working on becoming more accepting that 1) I function differently and it’s okay not to eat foods that are difficult and 2) it’s actually impressive what I do eat, and I should give myself more credit.