Asperger’s syndrome and diet
Aspies don’t like change and they especially don’t like change in their foods. Favourite foods are bland and come at the same time of the same day, week in, week out, come what may. Any of this sounding familiar so far? Studies have shown that amongst the favourite foods of Aspies are wheat-based things like bread and pasta, cereals, and, above all, milk. That about describes my own diet down to a tee. Or the basis of it, anyway. I couldn’t stomach fruit growing up and I was very wary of anything new, no matter how much Mum and Dad said I might like it. Macaroni, lasagna, even spaghetti all featured heavily in my childhood diet; as they do for most Aspies. Well-cooked but bland flavours. I was bored. I was told that other things like fruit, salads and so forth were better for me. I could not, then, however, stomach many of the contrasting and sometimes either all-too-sweet or all-too-bitter tastes or flavours that these things brought with them.
Texture is a real issue for myself, as well as many other Aspies, from the research I have done. And first of all, the bad news – there is no “one size fits all” easy cure answer. My own best way around it is to take things slowly. It will be frightening and daunting at first but the pay-off at the end is fantastic. My own way around it was to mix the tastes. See what it was (and is) that other people like so much about the food you see them eating. This is also a very good way to start and develop social skills – eating as a social thing. I found that as I was trying a new thing it helped greatly to be with someone, to have someone to talk to, both around and about the food, because it took my mind, slowly, off the fact that I was doing something I really did not, at least initially, want to do. It will be a slow process, and the key here for parents, carers, friends, whatever, is not to force the change upon you, as the Aspie. Create a warm atmosphere, a relaxed place in which you can both eat and just talk about whatever. Comments such as “How are you finding that?”, “Isn’t this nice?”, “What is it you’re liking about your meal?” and so on and so forth will help draw the Aspie out of themselves and increase their confidence in both the areas of adapting to new things and also being active socially.
What we will look at here are some short steps towards changing the diet of an Aspie, the reasons why we, as Aspies, should do so and the benefits (both long- and short-term) which will be had from doing so.
I know I very soon started to feel better after introducing fruit into my diet. I felt much more active both mentally and physically. Yes, I liked my bread. Yes, I liked my milk. Yes, I liked (and still very much do like) lots of wheat-based foods. But they are bland foods, which never change and that is the real reason, I believe, why we Aspies like them. Harsh though it may seem, all recommendations for change made here are for the benefit of both the Aspie and those who care about them.
How does diet tie in with repetitive behaviours? The Aspie is the ultimate creature of habit. We are used to eating at a particular time (or times) each day. We are used to eating particular things every day or at certain times of the week. When we get something new or unexpected, for us it is scary, unless handled in a certain way. The overarching advice to get over this fear of the new would seem to be, introduce it gradually. Two familiar things for (or with) every one new thing would be my advice, drawn from experience. That way, we are getting the repetition as well as the new thing.
I had, as a child (and still do have), great difficulties with new textures. Where most people can simply put some food in their mouths, chew quickly and be done with it, I could spend what seemed like hours chewing on the same piece of food. I had to know there were no nasty surprises waiting therein for me. I had to feel every inch of the food and know what I was getting into. Everyone else loved the surprise and the exploration of the new. I, it seemed, did not. What this led to was boring familiarity.
Familiarity breeds a kind of comfort and what does comfort bring for the Aspie and non-Aspie alike? That’s right: comfort food. Aspies, many studies have shown, love their comfort food. This is because, unlike the outside world, there are no horrific surprises to be had when you know what you are going to get to eat.
Websites such as www.autism.org.uk are a great help to parent and Aspie alike in understanding this. Their suggestion of the creation of a food diary, for practical monitoring and change introduction purposes was a huge help to myself amongst others, as it makes change manageable.
And manageability’s the key word here. My own parents and others, good though their intentions were, tried to introduce new foods to me in the same way that one would with a so-called ‘normal’ child. The results were often nothing short of disastrous. And no-one, least of all myself, knew why!
The reasons now, looking back, are obvious. It was new. I was scared. No-one had told me what to expect because no-one thought that they would have to do so. This was thirty years ago and more. People knew little about autism, as we know it now. They knew absolutely nothing about Asperger’s Syndrome. They just thought that I, and millions like me, were awkward, badly behaved children.
My parents had, when I was between the ages of about 4 and 15, to really persevere to get me to eat things like fruit. This again comes down to texture and sudden explosions of taste. I hated it, for example, when I put my teeth into an apple for the first time, piercing the skin (which didn’t taste of much so that was fine, so far so good) and then the juice of the main fruit suddenly exploding into my mouth. Apart from anything else, I have very sensitive teeth and it really hurt, which made me scream. More frustration and lack of understanding from my parents. I went back to liking food with bland flavours. I was very jealous of people who could handle more.
My parents must, eventually, have decided that it was pointless getting me to try new things like fruit. It is interesting to note that one of the sources I consulted for this article (www.bbc.co.uk) mentions that Aspies like milk and milk-based food a lot.
Even now, I drink enough milk to give farmers a very healthy profit margin each year! But I just ate and drank the same things because that was what I did, that was all I felt able to do. But change frightened me, so what to do about it? The answer eventually came to me one day, whilst preparing my lunch for college. I was making the same kind of sandwich filling that I did every day. OK, the sandwich was made, what about stuff to go with it?
A bowl fruit lay on the kitchen table. An apple and an orange. Bitterness and sweetness. The extremes of which no normal food eater could ever taste. What should I choose? But then, I had a thought – why choose? Why not have both? Only one of each, but hey, small steps, surely taken.
Come lunchtime, I found out. Sandwiches with egg mayonnaise, one of my favourite fillings. Then the apple. My heart was going like a kick drum. What happened next?
This time there was no explosion inside my mouth. My teeth didn’t feel as though they had been hit by blasts of ice jets travelling at 90 miles per hour. Just instead, a sweet, slow trickle of flavour. It was really quite pleasant.
It occurred to me then that some things can work in reverse also. Some foods which I (apparently) liked as a baby, I cannot stand in adult life. I used to have a banana every morning as a baby. Now, even the smell of them makes me feel sick. Apples and oranges; where once I hated, now I love them!
I made a note, from then, and for quite a while afterwards, of every time something like this happened to me. Or, more precisely, every time that I made something like this happen. Not a food diary, exactly, but I think it is very important to keep some record of one’s progress.
The only way to conquer your fears is to confront them. Do it one step at a time and you will soon notice a change in yourself.
Since introducing new foods into my diet, I have felt a lot better both physically and mentally. Aspies always want to feel better mentally, whether they classify it like this or not. The key to helping yourself start on this path is to give your body the correct fuel. People will go on at you about this, but in this case they have a definite point.
So, to sum up then, what did I learn from making changes to my diet? Well, you will get much more enjoyment out of your food. It will also give you many more ways in which to relate to those around you, both family and friends. You will also feel so much better, both physically AND mentally. You may think you are content now but just you wait until the changes in your diet kick in!
How to go about making that change? Start off by making a note of the foods you eat most regularly and what you want to get out of them, in terms of nourishment and enjoyment. Then, go to your doctor for a checkup (What weight are you now? What is your ideal weight? What are you eating now which is good for you? What do you need to cut down on? What other foods could you try instead?)
Create a food diary detailing what you have eaten every day and how this has made you feel. An example of how to do this can be found on the www.autism.org.uk website. This will both enable you to track your progress and also really tell you what is working for you. This will also be very helpful for parents/carers/social workers etc. because it forms a record of progress in real time. It also keeps you on track as you will keep asking yourself two very important questions, namely: “Where am I?” and “Where do I want to be?”. And it’ll give you the motivation to get there!
Don’t worry too much at the start about overeating. Remember, this is a journey not a race. If you try cutting out your comfort foods completely, you will only want them more. If you factor them into your food diary and your diet plan, you will enjoy them all the more. Think about what other activities you associate with food (watching TV, playing computer games and so forth). Try and do a little less eating when you are doing these every day. You will, as I do now, enjoy each of these activities so much more and, even better, you will soon stop associating them with food!
Certain foods made me feel good once upon a time. Now the fact that I am in control of a far more varied and interesting diet makes me feel even better. This is your life. This is your journey. Start now and enjoy!
ROBERT LAING BIOGRAPHY
Robert discovered he had Asperger’s at the age of 20, quite by chance. His mother had been given Tony Attwood’s first book and recognized within it characteristics and situations similar to these encountered by both Robert and herself as a parent.
Robert has felt moved to write about Asperger’s – both his own experience with it and also the help that is available out there to others – now, because there are more people both being born with it and also being diagnosed with it retrospectively, in later life. He wishes to offer help and advice to others, just as others have done for him.
Aside from Asperger’s Syndrome, Robert also writes for a variety of website and print publications on subjects such as music, books and the local area in which he lives.
Robert has done a considerable amount of research into the average Aspie diet. He is sure that both parent and Aspie alike will find something to relate to in both this and future articles and welcomes feedback from both. He can be contacted for this and other writing matters at [email protected].