Food is important. It sustains us, nourishes us, and provides us an opportunity to bond with our fellows during its consumption. Eating is used as a pleasure activity, a social activity, or just something to pass the time. Everyone does it. But for the autistic, eating can be a challenge. Many autistic people I know—myself included—have very limited palates, which are irregular in their patterns and nonsensical in their choices. Many a friend has been confused by the variety of foods that I can and cannot eat, and almost incensed by the seemingly random nature of those foods. Why can I eat pizza but not cheeseburgers? Why can I eat pears but not lettuce? Why is it that I can eat plain pasta, but as soon as a sauce enters the mix I’m out? And why, why for the love of God, do I not like chocolate?  While there is a method to the madness, some explanation is required to get us there.

The fundamental difference between an autistic brain and a neurotypical brain is that an autistic brain experiences more of the world than does a neurotypical brain. Sensory experiences are more intense, with more information being processed and every bit of that information carrying more weight. Taste is a sense, comprising not only the physical components of texture and aspects of taste, but also the olfactory component that translates smells into parts of taste as well.  It is in these combinations of smell, taste and texture that many derive enjoyment.  Chefs are praised on their ability to mix textures, on being able to add subtle hints of flavor to a dish, or to meld seamlessly many ingredients into a cohesive whole.  While this may seem enjoyable to many, to me—and to many autistic individuals—all of that just seems like too much.

When your sensory experience of the world is intense, complexity is not your friend. For me, when a food is too complex or too intense—when, for instance, spices are used in the dish, or when many ingredients are mixed together—I cannot eat it. Now, this should not be confused with disliking a food. There are many foods that I do not eat simply because I do not like them. Lobster is one of them. If pressed, I could consume a lobster to survive, with only a mild amount of griping. With other foods—like salads, or sandwiches, or the more complicated dishes that are served during special events—the sensory experience is far too intense, and I cannot eat them. To attempt to do so would be physically painful to me. To illustrate what I mean, take an example from my childhood.

When I was eight, my mother and I went to an old restaurant and shopping center called Grand City (whose structural carcass is now occupied by a Cool as a Moose). When we ordered our lunch, I ordered chicken fingers and fries, and she a sandwich and salad. Her salad came first, and while we waited for the rest of our food, she tried to get me to try some of her salad. Then, as now, I did not like vegetables. For me they are either too textured or too strong tasting, but she assured me that, by putting dressing on one of the cucumbers, I would like it. I did not. As soon as that dressing soaked cucumber entered my mouth, it came right back out again, and into my mother’s water glass. She was not pleased.

Now, did I want to spit the dressing-laden contents of my mouth into my mother’s water glass? No. But the pungent odor of the dressing, the crunch of the cucumber’s flesh and the slimy texture of the seeds, were all together so intense that I felt I was going to throw up (and even now, ten years later, I cannot think of that story without feeling a little queasy). Such is my experience with many foods. Any food with an intense taste, or multiple textures, or a combination of the two, is going nowhere near my mouth. 

At times this makes my life a bit difficult. During my pre-O trip, I had to survive mainly on apples and tortilla shells, and during orientation proper, when fine dining was the name of the game and everyone around me was expounding the quality of the food, I had to subsist on rolls and pears. After applying for accommodations, my food situation has much improved, as the dining staff now knows that for me bland is better, but eating can still be a challenge sometimes. That is okay, though. I do not mind bland foods, because to me they are just intense enough, so my dietary needs are often less expensive (both in terms of calories and dollars) than for most. As one of my autistic friends likes to say, “he is richest whose pleasures are cheapest.”