Not Just Picky Eaters – Autism, Samefoods, and Bland Foods
As we get into the holiday season, I want to talk about autistic eating habits. Many of us, especially as children, get written off as “picky eaters” (George Carlin’s “Fussy Eater” routine comes to mind), but there are reasons for the way we eat and our limited palates. Before all the family gatherings and big holiday meals, here’s what you need to know about food aversions, samefoods, and bland foods.
Why Are We Picky?
Ok, first of all, autistic people are not just “picky eaters”. A picky eater is my ex who, in his late thirties, consistently refused to eat anything green because it was “rabbit food”. That’s not what we do.
Still, most parents of autistic kids are familiar with the struggle of getting an autistic child to eat more than a few foods. Some of us don’t grow out of that, even though often our palates do expand a bit with age. Have you ever stopped to ask why autistic people struggle with food, though?
Consider all the sensory aversions that can come into play regarding food. There are temperature issues, texture problems, and flavors to contend with. Because we experience our sensory input so intensely, any of these can send us over the edge.
While temperature is pretty easily overcome – just let it cool off or warm it up a bit – texture is a major challenge for autistic people of all ages. Crunchy onions are a big turnoff for me, even as I appreciate the flavor in soups or other dishes (if I can’t tell they’re in there, no problem). Some people can’t eat squishy, slimy things, others can only tolerate certain foods either fresh or cooked, not both ways – I find this tends to apply to vegetables in particular. Dry meat can make one’s whole mouth uncomfortable, or overly moist meat can feel undercooked and weird. Rare steak or roast beef makes me gag, no matter how good the flavor is.
When it comes to flavors, remember that our intense sensory experience means that many autistic people are supertasters. And this can manifest differently in different people. For example, I can’t stand anything that comes within ten feet of being burnt. Like to the point that I actually prefer most foods just barely done or even a hair underdone. I can taste “overdone” before anyone I know and I called it “burned” until I was an adult and learned that there was another word I could use. However, I grew up with someone who wants everything well done and can’t stand any food with any flavor or spice to it at all because everything is “too spicy” for her. Yes, it was awkward growing up in the same house.
Like I said, for many of us, our palates expand as we grow up, but we do tend to stay somewhat restricted in our diets. We’ll generally eat the same thing at restaurants and have a list of foods and/or meals that we rotate through regularly because foods we know are a guarantee that we will eat.
“Samefood” is a term I didn’t know until I found the Autistic community, but I was always familiar with the concept. Samefoods are those foods that we eat over and over, our go-to meals and snacks that we always love and that we will always eat.
For me, that’s popcorn, salt and vinegar potato chips, pasta with tomato and basil sauce, jambalaya, and my homemade potato and leek soup, among others. For other people, it may be steak, carrots, bacon, chicken nuggets, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, Goldfish crackers, apples, mashed potatoes, or fish sticks. Really, it could be anything.
We may insist on specific brands or preparations of our samefoods because others just don’t taste right to us. My friends’ autistic daughter insists that her chicken nuggets be microwaved because when baked, they don’t taste like the ones she eats at school. I understand where she’s coming from with that, but I hope that she grows out of that because microwaved chicken is gross. I always buy the same popcorn because my brand is just salty enough without getting overpowering, and I only eat certain varieties of apples because Galas and Fujis are just better than Red Delicious (you can’t change my mind on that).
Samefoods get a bad rap among parents of autistic kids because they make mealtimes difficult, but we like our samefoods for a reason: things that are the same mean no stress for us! When we go for a food that we know, we don’t have to worry about a weird texture or unexpected flavor. We don’t have to think about whether or not we’ll be able to swallow each bite or if we’ll have to drown each mouthful with a drink to wash it down. Sometimes we can’t choke down certain foods, no matter how hungry we might be, so samefoods are a safe option for us.
So, for all those holiday meals and gatherings, have some samefoods on hand, just to make sure you or your autistic loved ones eat. Everyone will be happier.
For some autistic people, bland foods are the best. Remember what I said about many of us being supertasters? Sometimes, the cure for that is plain, simple flavors.
Most of the time, my love of bland foods is limited to my slightly-salted popcorn or artisan bread with butter. But when I’m feeling less than my best due to a migraine or a fibro flare, nothing beats plain white rice with butter and salt. It may sound weird to you, but I cannot adequately express how perfect it tastes when I’m not up to handling bigger, more complex flavors like proteins or vegetables.
Many autistic people prefer simple foods like plain pasta, unbuttered toast, barely-seasoned chicken, etc. because bland food won’t overwhelm their sense of taste. For them, dishes with layers of flavor or lots of seasoning like curries, stews, or complex sauces are too much to handle. Richness, spice, sweetness, or just too many flavors at once can be difficult to process, which will then interfere with their ability to enjoy their food or, possibly, to eat it at all.
Please understand that this is just as inconvenient for an autistic adult as it is for any parents of autistic kids. It makes parties and dinners and going out just as stressful, if not more so – as adults, we’re aware of how odd we appear to others and we’ve been through enough episodes of shaming that we panic over the possibility of “causing a scene” (even if that’s just ordering a hamburger plain or something like that – people will ridicule others for a lot of things). We might be so afraid of the potential consequences that we stay away from eating around people altogether.
Choosing foods that we know we will be able to eat without our senses getting overwhelmed is a way for autistic kids and adults to manage our stress and keep ourselves on an even keel. It takes extra time, requires planning and thinking ahead, but it’s worth it. And if there are concerns about not getting proper nutrition, there are meal replacements and vitamins for that.
What are your favorite samefoods? I can’t handle avocados, asparagus, or eggs – which foods, textures, flavors can you just NOT stand? How do you work around food aversions for holiday meals and parties? Eat before you go, bring some of your own favorites? Have you become open to more foods as you grew up?