On Food, Sensory Issues, and Social Pressure

If one really thinks about it, food is a pretty intense multi-sensory experience. When you eat, you’re experiencing and responding to a variety of tastes, smells, textures, consistencies, and temperatures. You’re also looking at it, and experiencing it’s color, shape, and visual texture. Then, you’re interacting with the food; touching it, scooping it, or cutting it, and then chewing it. And afterwards, there’s the feeling of having eaten; the body feels different when it’s full. That’s a lot of sensory input all packed into one experience. For someone who processes their senses differently, foods that are considered normal or even delicious can be unbearable.

These are some of the major things that I simply cannot eat, and why. Hopefully this list will shed some light on what it’s like to have food-related sensory issues.

  • Beef. Especially ground beef or steak. It’s the texture here that’s the problem; ground beef is crumbly and steak is chewy. Despite really trying to enjoy steak many times (my parents made a fuss over it), I will gag if I attempt to eat it. I also can’t proficiently use a knife and fork to cut food, so things like steak are a struggle to deal with.

  • Potatoes. This includes french fries, mashed, baked – any potato. This one is again texture-based. Potatoes have a grainy, mushy texture that I just can’t stand. They also make me feel too heavy after eating them.

  • Corn. With this one, it’s the smell and the taste. Both seem sickly sweet to me. If someone even opens a can of corn in the same room as me, I will have to bolt before I get nauseous. So, considering the above entries as well, shepherd’s pie is a nightmare in a casserole dish to me.

  • Certain cooked vegetables. Specifically: carrots, peas, broccoli, green beans, and cauliflower. All of these have a common mushy-grainy texture that is very repulsive to me. I also really dislike the tastes of these. I could not make myself eat any of these.

  • Cake. Particularly the North-American, frosting covered kind. It’s just way too sweet, and sweet things make me sick.

  • Very rich foods. This includes butter, heavy cream, non-skim milk, pudding, non-light cream cheese, and probably others that I’m forgetting. But you get the picture. I’ve a very low tolerance for fat content in my food, and all of these will make me feel sick and heavy. Oddly enough, I love cheese.

  • Peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. I can’t stand these; I can’t even bite one without cringing. They’re too squishy and mushy, and the consistencies clash. They’re also weirdly sweet and moist. Yeah, I just can’t.

  • Carbonated drinks. I simply can’t handle the bubbles. They make me feel sick to my stomach. I could not get through a can of Coke without feeling very, very ill. Even sparkling water is too much.


Social Pressures

While the sensory issues surrounding food were bothersome, confusing, and sometimes downright appalling, the social pressures were worse.

As you can see from the above list, many of the foods I can’t handle are common North-American fare. In my childhood, I was considered a notoriously picky eater, and this was a problem. This led me to make myself eat certain things that I could tolerate with some effort but really didn’t enjoy (like ground beef and potatoes); it was a form of passing. Eating those foods meant I was behaving myself and not being “difficult”. I learned that my likes and dislikes were wrong, and that if a family member says a food is good, then it is. With some foods though, no amount of self-control could make me eat them. I remember once being told that I had to sit at the table after dinner until I ate my broccoli. I’m not sure how long I sat there, but eventually bedtime came and I still hadn’t even touched the broccoli. My parents let the broccoli thing go after that.

I want to say here that I do realize that parents are often concerned about their child’s nutrition. I think for my Mom, that was the main issue. And she did help me find things, like fruit and chicken, that are nutritious and enjoyable for me. For my Dad, however, it was more than that. He made me feel that my food preferences were a problem and that I was inconveniencing others. For example, he used to get upset with me for not liking birthday cake. It was a celebration, and I had to participate in eating the cake or I was ruining other people’s fun. How other people’s enjoyment of an event was dependant on whether or not I ate cake is completely beyond me. And birthday cake is not nutritious.

When I became a teenager, I decided I wasn’t going to force myself to eat certain foods. If it was a struggle just to get something down, I refused to eat it. Beef, potatoes, milk, and butter went out the window (not literally, though that might’ve been fun). This caused my Dad to tell me that “One of these days you’re going to have to start eating normal food”. Of course, “normal” was the aforementioned foods that he really liked and I didn’t. There are other “normal” foods that I like, but never got the chance to try because the menu was largely determined by my Dad’s preferences. So during that time I basically had microwaveable pasta or bagels for dinner. If there was salad, I’d eat that. I wasn’t allowed to get in anyone’s way and make something different for myself. At family gatherings, I was thankfully allowed to bring my own food (usually just more microwave dinners), but I was then made to feel bad about it. I had to profusely apologize to my grandmother (who often did the cooking for family events), and I felt like I was bothersome and pushing my luck. From my perspective, my Dad and relatives had an air of “you’re getting more accommodations that you deserve”. Sometimes, even what I chose would be criticized for not being special enough for the event. Again, apparently me eating a bagel at Thanksgiving was somehow taking away from other people’s turkey.

I also had social pressures from peers surrounding food. Elementary school classmates would tease me for not liking cake, ketchup, french fries, or candy. Even in my 20s, I’ve been ridiculed for not liking fries. When I was in art school (more on that in another post), an acquaintance had fries and offered me one. I declined, saying “No thanks, I don’t like fries”. Then, no fewer than five people who were in the room (some of whom I’d barely spoken to) turned to me and exclaimed things like “What!? You don’t like fries?” and “Who doesn’t like fries?” and “What’s wrong with you?”. No, I don’t like fries, and who the fuck even cares?

Over my food preferences, I’ve been called weird, strange, unnatural, wrong, difficult, attention-seeking, a problem, and “just trying to be different”.

 

I’m Not Picky

Yep, that’s right, I’m not actually picky. The number of foods I like far outnumbers the ones I dislike, and my boyfriend and I never bump up against any pickiness.

Since I’ve been living independently with my boyfriend, I’ve discovered that there are actually quite a lot of things I like. I love most Asian foods, including curry, sushi, noodle dishes, soups, chicken dishes, and fried rice. I also like fish (as long as it’s not battered), chicken, tofu, shrimp, almond milk, avocados, pasta, and most Mexican dishes. On the vegetable front, I like bell peppers, spinach, cabbage, cooked onions, zucchini, butternut squash, tomatoes, and bean sprouts. I’ve also discovered that I like the light or low-fat versions of things that I thought I disliked, like peanut butter and sour cream. I just never had the chance to try many of these things growing up. I’ve found that if I stick to things that are spicy, citrusy, crispy, crunchy, springy, light, and are integrated dishes, there are many things I like. A lot of the foods I like have directly opposing characteristics to the foods I dislike (compare mushy steamed carrots on the side to crispy red peppers sauteed in an Asian noodle dish). That’s not a coincidence.

Cooking my own food with my boyfriend has really helped too. That way, we can control exactly what’s in it. And cooking is surprisingly fun. We’ve found many really good and really easy recipes, and we have a Pinterest board displaying them all visually (don’t worry, we haven’t got any “cauliflower pizza crust”, or “pasta made with zucchini strips” – just yummy, easy to make things). We also plan out all of our dinners for the week on Monday, which has the double benefit of keeping us calm, and avoiding two hour long “what do you want for dinner?” conversations. We’ve been told we’re rigid about food, but the way we do it really works for us. Now, I enjoy food much more than ever, I don’t feel like my preferences are wrong or bothersome, and I actually have a much healthier diet.

Basically, food is a very personal thing, and individual preferences should be respected. No one should be made to feel inadequate, defective, or problematic simply for not being able or willing to eat certain foods. If it’s a sensory issue, chances are the person can’t just “learn to like it”.

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Holiday Reform

Since about the middle of October, I’ve been getting increasingly anxious about the approaching holiday season. Like jittery, physically ill anxious. For the past few years I’ve been trying desperately to like Christmas (or to at least appear to) and berating myself harshly when I fail. But this year, which will be the first holiday season since I discovered my autism, I’ve been able to accept that I don’t like it. I just don’t. It’s a stressful, overly social, event with sensory attacks waiting around every corner. Plus, I’m an atheist. And going into autumn, I felt the tremors of an incomprehensible avalanche of stress hurtling towards me.

So I made a list.

I listed all of the things I find stressful about the holiday, by category. You can take a look at it here: Why is Christmas Stressful? (the rest of this post will make more sense if you do). Just making the list made me feel a lot better and more in control of the situation, which is definitely a good thing. I later went over the list with my boyfriend and then my Mom, and we came up with some practical solutions to make this Christmas not so bad. I’ll be straight up here: if I had my way, I’d simply forget about Christmas and never celebrate it again. But, my boyfriend actually does want to celebrate it (thankfully in a quiet, laid-back, autism-friendly way), and I’m going to compromise with him.

Here are the solutions we came up with:

  • We’re going to only have decorations up for one week, and we are going to keep them minimal and in one room only. This way, the decor situation will be contained and won’t overload me as much.

  • We’re going to eat the same food in the same amounts as we usually do. This will help keep things more routine, and avoid me feeling sick because of sweet foods or just too much food in general.

  • My boyfriend and I aren’t getting surprise gifts for each other; instead, we’re going to pick out something for both of us together.

  • We’re not going to wrap said something, in order to avoid the sensory issues giftwrap causes.

  • We’re also not going to leave wrapping, boxes, bags, or any other crap lying around the house. I need my space to be neat, and taking the time to put things away is worth it for me.

  • We’re getting gift cards or just Christmas cards for other people. This will help in both limiting the time spent in public, and in reducing the stress of picking out gifts.

  • Social events will be limited in frequency and duration. They will also be planned with rest periods in between them.

  • On Christmas itself, we’re going to mostly stick to our usual routine.

  • We’re not doing the whole “week of festivities” thing. It’s mostly going to be a normal week.

  • New Year’s will be acknowledged, but we’re not doing anything to celebrate.


So, overall, this thing is going to be much less of a big deal than it usually is. Keeping things routine and sense-comfortable is very important to me, as is having lots of time at home. I don’t ever expect myself to be all “yay Christmas!”, and it’s actually liberating to not have that expectation anymore. Still, it would be nice to not dread December so much, and to make it through without a meltdown or a lot of stress. I’m already feeling better than I usually do at this time of year, so that’s a good sign. Just knowing that something is being done, and that those who matter are supporting me and not thinking I’m a monster, is a big relief.

I know I can’t be the only autistic person who finds the holidays to be a stressful ordeal. So I hope my solutions (or just thinking about it in general), are helpful to others in some way.