As I am writing this, I’m eating pretzels.
I‘m really hungry, and I don’t really want pretzels. But my mind is allowing me to eat them right now, so I’m eating them.
Being autistic means I do things only when I’m “allowed” to do them. Nobody is giving me these limitations; they are internal. I wait for some arbitrary “right time” to do everything: eat, sleep, or go to the bathroom.
I have to wait. For what? I’m not sure.
Leaving the house, for example, has rules. Can’t be early: that’s awkward. Can’t be late: that’s rude. I can’t leave before I’ve made sure I’ve had everything, and occasionally I’ll run in and out of the house four times going to retrieve the things I forgot.
Eating is even more maddening. Arbitrary rules govern my eating habits. I eat not when I’m hungry, but when my mind and mouth allow me to eat.
My stomach doesn’t like feeling full. I eat until my head stops hurting. I feel my mind clear and my mood lighten. The air around me softens. At this point, I can take a couple more bites before my stomach tells me to stop.
I have never been a big fan of food. I hate going out to eat because of it. Each time I see a new menu I spend twenty minutes looking at it anxiously while everyone chats. I get anxious when the people I am with start discussing what they’ll be “having.”
I hope they don’t ask me. They are just being polite, chatting about the food, but that question puts me on the spot. I’m “having” a panic attack.
What do I want? Definitely not any of this. I’ll have… something that’s on this menu, presumably?
The flavors might be fantastic, but if there are small bits of onion in it, I can’t finish. The sauce might be perfectly seasoned, but if there are lumpy tomatoes on my plate I will fish around them. Nothing could be wrong with a dish whatsoever and my stomach will groan in a strange way and I’ll just have to stop.
I’ll have some of the bread, a Diet Coke, and two bites of my side dishes (if they mash the potatoes right). Then, I’ll cut up my meat and move it around the plate. I’ll lean back and act full so nobody asks me “So, you didn’t like it?”
At some point, I came to terms with the fact that my restrictive eating was nothing short of an eating disorder that needed to be addressed. Maybe I was just fed up with being hungry.
I can’t tell you how many times I have been offered dinner or a snack at someone’s house, and no matter how ravenous I am, I reply with: “I’m OK, thanks!”
Children on the autism spectrum often have aversions to food. Parents of autistic children reach out to online forums, desperate. Their child just doesn’t seem to eat anything. They’ve tried everything, but they just can’t seem to get them to eat!
Brenda Legge wrote “Can’t Eat, Won’t Eat,” hoping to help other parents in her situation. Her story begins when she realized her autistic son had an aversion to milk. She wrote about how her family struggled when he stopped eating 99.9% of the food put in front of him.
I hear you, kid. Milk? Yuck.
Parenting experts have written plenty of literature on “picky eating.” Books geared toward parents raising autistic children discuss the topic at length. As a child, I didn’t know anything about these things. Growing up, my family and I never knew that I was autistic.
So now, at 24, am I expected to go through parenting books to figure out how to get myself to eat?
When a child has aversions to food, they have a support system. Dinners are prepared for them multiple times a day. Once you get to be in your twenties, though, nobody has the time to watch you and make sure your eating. They just tell you that you have gotten skinny, either with judgment, or envy.
Parenting books aside, I researched about supplements. I started taking vitamins every day, and I finally found a protein drink that isn’t milk based. I started focusing more on the healthy foods that I do like, rather than the ones I don’t.
My whole mood has shifted in a relatively short amount of time. The world seems lighter since I started making just a few small changes.
Now that I am an adult, I can choose to accept that I will always be “picky.” My diet is a little strange, but it works for me. I can take charge of my health and find the diet that is right for me without shame. The world is an amazing place when you’re not starving.