A question I often get from parents and other autistic people is how to handle the picky eating an autistic child or adult experiences. I relate to this all too well. For myself, growing up I spent an entire year eating nothing but cheese and mustard sandwiches for every meal. The texture and sensory of food was so overwhelming for me that I was constantly falling off the weight charts and struggled to build any kind of muscle. Food is an intense experience. It engages all of the senses. You are simultaneously processing textures, smells, tastes, and often sounds (crunching, chewing, etc.) and do not have a lot of predictability in what you will experience with each sense in food you have never tried before. Additionally, the temperatures of food often were hard for me. If something is too hot or too cold it hurts to eat it, even if other people would not notice it. In many ways I am oversensitive to a lot of temperatures. For this reason, it was extremely difficult for me to begin to expand my palate and enjoy food.
Many of us struggle with this. However, one individual Aspie Chef has found new and creative ways to help with the sensory issues leading to picky eating through cooking. Aspie Chef provides recipes created specifically for others on the autism spectrum. Taking ingredients that are traditionally difficult to consume for texture or sensory reasons and turning them into dishes that are more accessible and delicious. Edge of the Playground is excited to share the following interview with Aspie Chef about the journey to better eating, something that I am confident will help a lot of us.
We are even given a special Aspie Chef original recipe to try at the end! Thank you to Aspie Chef!
- Please introduce yourself!
Hi! I’m The Aspie Chef. I work for a large tech company by day, and, if you’re interested, I could talk ad nauseum about the intersection of software engineering and organizational psychology. But I suppose that’s not why I’m here 🙂
What I really love to do is cook (and bake and grow food in my garden and watch cooking shows and read cookbooks and… you get the idea). It’s one of very few hobbies / interests that I’ve managed to stick with over the long term.
At age 29, I received an Asperger’s diagnosis (which wasn’t exactly a surprise). Among other things, I have a texture sensitivity that’s made me a picky eater since birth. I spent most of my life eating bread, cheese, chicken, and… things you can make with bread, cheese, and chicken. I was OK with some other foods, too, but you could probably count the number of things I’d eat on two hands. This made life difficult when I developed an allergy to gluten, dairy, and eggs in my mid-20s.
So now I cook. Eating food was hazardous enough already, even before factoring in my allergies, and I learned the safest thing is often to make food for myself. I think it was actually more of a blessing than a curse, though, because it’s helped me get over my picky eating habits. Now, cooking and exploring new foods is one of my favorite activities.
- What inspired you to start your blog The Aspie Chef?
Learning that I’m on the spectrum helped me realize that I’m not alone. I spent my life thinking that I was just the weird one that wouldn’t eat what everyone else did, but now I know there’s a reason for it. I’m far from an expert on autism spectrum disorders, but my understanding is that food and texture sensitivities like mine are quite common.
So to actually answer your question – I started my blog partially to process my diagnosis, and partially with the hopes of helping others overcome the same challenges.
- What makes eating certain foods so difficult for autistic people?
I won’t speak for everyone else, but in my case it mostly boils down to anxiety. I wrote a post the other day about this, and the short version is that repeated bad experiences with food got me to the point where I wasn’t willing to try anything at all.
For me, eating food is scary. Here’s an example of what I mean: imagine you’re eating a boneless, skinless chicken breast when you bite into something crunchy. Most people will ignore it or chew through it, but I don’t really know how to do that. It’s probably just some harmless cartilage, but this is boneless / skinless chicken. There shouldn’t be any cartilage. Unexpected textures like that are literally nauseating to me. If I don’t spit it out, don’t worry. My body will spit it out for me.
The problem is that I find most textures to be similarly “unexpected”, so trying new foods as a kid usually meant a lot of gagging. I wish I knew why I react to so many different textures, but I don’t. It just is what it is.
Early on, I simply lost interest in growing my palate. I knew that every other time I tried something new it went poorly, so I stopped bothering. Weeks, months, and years went by, and the picky eating became part of my identity. I had so much anxiety around diverging from my eating routines that the mere thought of trying something new made my heart race. Texture was definitely still a factor, but it really became more about anxiety.
- What are some tips for finding ways to expand the foods autistic people eat while also taking into account sensory issues?
Start small. You’re not going to change your entire diet overnight, and you don’t need to. If you feel that tonight’s not the night to try something new, then don’t try it. If you do try something and decide you don’t like it, that’s OK. It’ll still be there if you ever want to try it again. With that in mind, here are a couple tips:
- Pick one ingredient at a time, and try it in small doses. I learned to like green beans by eating miniscule bites off my wife’s plate. I slowly (over the course of days and weeks) increased the amount I’d eat in any one sitting, which gave me time to adjust to the new textures and flavors.
- Build on dishes you love. One of my favorite foods is roast potatoes covered in olive oil, salt, and pepper. I developed my taste for carrots by adding small amounts to the mix. Cooking them the same way and covered in the same stuff made it easier to tolerate the carrots. Just make sure the flavors you combine actually go well together first.
Most importantly, try new things alone or surround yourself with the right people. You might deal with some sensory over-stimulation at first, and having to wear your mask at the same time won’t help.
- What are some of your favorite foods and why?
Carrots and potatoes are my staples. They’re mild, versatile, easy to prepare, and nutritionally dense. I like their textures as well, especially when sliced thin. Cover them in a healthy oil then toss them in the oven for 20 minutes, and they’ll be delicious. Plus, both come in rainbow colors. Can’t go wrong with that.
- What are the hardest foods for you to eat and why?
I’ve always struggled with seafood. Honestly, I find the smell of most seafood to be offensive. My wife waits until I’m not around to eat salmon or tuna, and she burns incense to cover the scent (both of which I’m grateful for). On the few occasions where I’ve gotten close enough to try fish or whatever else, I’ve disliked both the taste and the texture. It’s hard, but not. Chewy, but not. Flakey, but still stays together. It’s trying to be all the textures at once and failing. It’s like my mouth can’t process that the fish is actually food, so it just refuses to participate in the charade.
I’m actually OK with this, though. One thing to remember is that most people are picky about something, including neurotypical folks that lack specific sensitivities. I want to like more foods and be a healthier person. That doesn’t mean I have to like everything.
- What do you recommend for parents of autistic children on this topic?
I remember the pressure to eat more than anything else. As a kid (and as an adult), I hated when people would push me to try new things especially because they found it shocking no matter what I did. Take the bait and they’ll make a huge deal of it. Turn it down instead and they’ll just keep pushing. You can’t win.
I gave myself enough anxiety about my eating habits without anyone else’s help, and the constant attention from friends and family made it worse. If I could recommend one thing, it’s to avoid making a big deal out of your child’s pickiness or lack thereof. Home needs to be a safe place to try new foods, and also a safe place to say “no” when it’s not a good day to take that step.
- How do you recommend autistic adults start venturing into new foods?
Motivation comes first. I spent most of my life as a picky eater. I had a routine. These were the things that I ate, and that was it. When I decided to change, I was fighting against my natural tendency to follow that routine. Without strong internal motivation to beat my picky eating, I couldn’t have done it.
My motivation came from a desire to be healthier. I used to subsist on junk. Junk that I was apparently allergic to. I could’ve just bought gluten free cookies instead and continued on my way, but the thing is I already feel myself getting old. Random joint problems, an ankle injury that never fully healed, and so on. Age 29 is too young to feel old, and eating real food has absolutely helped. I have more energy, less brain fog, and generally feel better.
Your reasons don’t have to match mine, but I do think you need something to keep you on the path. It’s not easy, after all.
- Has cooking recipes yourself made it easier to eat different foods?
Definitely. When I cook for myself, I know exactly what I’m eating. There’s no risk of someone messing with my food or adding things I don’t like because I control the process from start to finish. This made it easy to trust my food, rather than wondering what’s really in it.
- Is there any additional information or favorite recipe you would like to share?
Sure! I mentioned earlier that potatoes are one of my favorite foods, but it wasn’t until a couple years ago that I learned to enjoy sweet potatoes. I think they have a stronger flavor, and I don’t love their mushier texture. They’re amazing when prepared well, though, and that’s super easy to do.
- Preheat your oven to 400 degrees (F).
- Peel the sweet potatoes, then cut them into slices. I recommend that you cut them in half lengthwise, lay the flat side on your cutting board, then cut strips off the side until you have none left. You want the slices to be pretty thin, and with a consistent thickness. Somewhere around 2-3 millimeters each.
- Put the slices in a big bowl, add coconut oil, salt, and pepper, then toss until coated. You can use as much or as little oil, salt, and pepper as you like. I recommend 1-2 tsp of oil per sweet potato, and make sure you melt the oil if it’s not already liquid.
- Spread your slices on a baking sheet so that none of them are on top of each other. You want each piece to be in full contact with the baking sheet, as this will help them crisp up. Use multiple baking sheets if necessary.
- Cook for 20-25 minutes, or until they’re nicely browned.
And finally – I’m happy to chat. Have questions? Want to share your experience? Please do. Comment on my blog (theaspiechef.com), send me an email (firstname.lastname@example.org), or tweet @TheAspieChef. Thanks for reading!