Autism & Food – a Sensory Addiction?

I used to joke that there’s a fat girl inside me trying to get out. Like the character of Monica in the sitcom Friends, my fight to keep my food lust under control has been a dominating feature in my life. Except that unlike Monica, I was skinny as a rake growing up and only started to gain weight in my 20’s.

Since my Autism diagnosis 4 years ago, I started to notice the link between my sensory processing differences and my relationship with food. A relationship that goes beyond simply enjoying food, to a realm where I crave certain textures and tastes and the rhythm of chewing becomes more like a stim than a necessary start to the digestion process.

An Indian Thali, the ultimate flavour and texture combination in small, separated portions – my ultimate dream meal!

My dad was a very plain eater and as a result, I was brought up on a diet of mainly beige food. Think meat and potatoes on repeat. It’s no wonder I decided to become a vegetarian age 14. My mum (for all her efforts) disliked cooking and it showed. I’m sure it was a thankless task cooking for so many of us.

I still shudder when I think of rice pudding with flabby, milk swollen raisins in, that made me wretch. Stew with chunks of soft steak and slimy carrot. Or custard with big pieces of soggy, browning banana in. I would gag and choke trying to swallow the pieces whole so I didn’t have to chew them.

I used to think I was ungrateful for not enjoying the food my Mum prepared. Now I understand my sensory processing differences it’s clear that raisin rice pudding and banana custard was the birthplace of my problems with texture.

My reasons for eating were also embedded in my childhood years. I observed my mum using food as a reward to treat herself with. Her life was lonely and stressful, raising 5 young children in a marriage dominated by alcoholism and violence. Who could blame her if she sought solace in comfort food. The problem was, my siblings and I adopted those same habits.

Sugar is my go-to comfort food and this is my favourite sugary treat, a Kentish Gypsy Tart. Crunchy, crumbly, buttery pastry with a sticky mousse of muscovado sugar and condensed milk.

We have all experienced an unhealthy tendency to comfort eat, overeat and eat in secret. As adults we’ve all see-sawed between slim and fit, and overweight and sedentary. There has never been a happy medium because we are ‘all or nothing’ characters. Whether my brothers share my sensory relationship with eating I don’t know but they have all experienced my struggle to maintain a healthy weight and a balanced diet.

I have a clear memory of sneaking into the kitchen to steal a packet of crisps when I maybe 10 years old. But there was only enough packets for the school lunch boxes. So I carefully ripped open the corner of a packet of cheese and onion flavour, took out a crisp, laid it on my tongue, let the flavour dissolve then put it back in the packet!!! I repeated this revolting ritual a few more times until my my craving was satisfied. I do feel bad that my brothers must have eaten the crisps I licked first on more than one occasion! Such was my unusual and addictive relationship with food.

I chose to become vegetarian when I was 14 and from there on in my diet consisted mostly of potato, eggs and cheese. Which are all perfectly delicious and can be combined any number of ways, but they’re hardly a balanced diet. I never knew pasta existed until my first husband made me a steaming bowl of pasta shells. Frozen mixed veg and flabby boiled to within an inch of its life broccoli, were the extent of my experience with vegetables.

And because I was able to eat unlimited amounts of chocolate without any repercussions, I did just that. Until I hit my mid 20’s and that fat girl inside me got out!

Ice cream is another obsession of mine. I love pistachio and coconut best and of course chocolate flakes add an extra layer of texture. When I was pregnant with L, I ate mint choc chip ice-cream every day of my pregnancy!

I never really appreciated that I was getting fat because I was happy in my life, I felt loved by my then husband, I enjoyed my job. But one New Years Eve whilst visiting the family home my Mum commented on my size. She always had this way of making very personal observations under the pretense of it being a joke. This was no exception. So I asked then husband ‘do you think I’m fat?’ He smiled affectionately and said ‘you’re like my little ladybird, a big round body with little arms and little legs’!!

At the time I laughed my head off because I think in pictures, and the image in my head was hilarious. But later, reflecting on that comment I was mortified.

I went to work a few days later with my weight on my mind, but unsure how to address it. I was an HR Director for a well known hotel chain. Once or twice a month all senior management had to complete duty manager shifts. That day I was in one of our flagship hotels, a grand, aging beauty with a sweeping spiral staircase that circled up to each of the 6 floors of bedrooms. All of a sudden the fire alarm went off. I radioed reception to check where it was triggered. It was the 6th floor! Now when a fire alarm is triggered, any lifts automatically go to ground and can’t be used. So I had to run up 6 sweeping flights of stairs on that huge spiral staircase to identify if the triggered alarm was down to an actual fire.

Thank goodness, it wasn’t a real fire. However picture if you will a short, bespectacled, heavily overweight blonde in a straining suit and stilettos trying to race up a 6 flights of stairs when she hasn’t done any proper exercise since PE at school!! By the third floor I could hardly breathe!

I remember the smooth feel of the highly polished wooden banister as I gripped it tightly and the way my heels sunk into the plush carpet. By the 4th floor my legs where like jelly and I was panting so hard you’d think I’d run a marathon. By the 5th floor I was overtaken by someone from Maintenance who’d realized I was taking too long and nimbly overtook me like a whippet on the way to the 6th floor.

The combination of my Mum and first husband’s comments plus the failed attempt to get to the 6th floor under my own steam, was the prod I needed to make some serious lifestyle changes.

First, I had to overcome my inbuilt stranger danger and self consciousness, to join a slimming club. I can’t pretend I wasn’t mortified being weighed in front of total strangers, but my desire to lose weight and get fit was more powerful.

My food diary went everywhere with me and I started buying recipe books to cook healthy meals. Now I can’t lie (nothing but the truth, right?), but I’m a horrible cook. I was a horrible cook then and I’m a horrible cook now. I specialise in burnt offerings and no matter how religiously I follow a recipe, it never, ever turns out like the picture! But for the first time in my life I understood what I was eating and could make sensible but still tasty, choices.

I enjoy making simple platters of vegetables and protein with crunchy oatcakes. It tastes good, is visually appealing and requires no cooking skills 🙂

To my surprise the process of analysing calories and fat content, and the routine of writing down everything that I ate, quickly became addictive (unsurprising now I understand I am Autistic). Weight loss became my special interest, something to hyper focus on.

I was shocked at the relative calorie content of different foods and started to eat fruit and veg that I’d never tried before – mostly raw because of my preference for crunchy textures. I learned to enjoy rice and grains, salad and fruit smoothies (the texture of fruit is still something I find hard to overcome).

When I’m being ‘good’ I prepare batches of fresh fruit and veg to make into smoothies. The colours, textures and smells are intoxicating and lift my mood in a way sugar and beige food simply can’t.

I also became addicted to exercise. I would run on the seafront every day before work. Often I’d run after work too! Or power up and down the hotel swimming pool, visualising the fat melting off me.

I started slimming club in the January and by early June I’d lost 4 stone. I literally leapt forward to grab the bell at my final weigh in and rang it enthusiastically over my slimmed down head to celebrate reaching my target. I was euphoric. I had a waist, actual hip bones, a flat stomach. I felt reborn.

Now being Autistic I have a number of sensory processing differences . For example I am hypersensitive (over sensitive) to noise and heat – both these things have the power to reduce me to a panicky tearful mess.

However I am hyposensitive (under sensitive) to interoception, the sense we use to interpret our bodies internal signals. Interoception tells you when you’re hot or cold, hungry or thirsty, or when you need the loo or feel unwell.

My under sensitivity to interoception means I don’t usually realise I need a wee until I’m hoping on one leg and shallow breathing because I’m wetting myself! It also means I seek out food and think I’m hungry when I’m actually tired, bored, stressed or thirsty.

What I also realise now in my 40’s, since my Autism diagnosis, is that the sensory experience of eating food is itself very addictive. I love foods that are crunchy and chewy. Or that start out hard but them melt into creamy smoothness. The physical act of chewing and swallowing provides a soothing rhythm that calms my hectic mind. Often when I eat, I do so for that sensory experience, my body craving the familiar textures and tastes. This explains why I eat when I’m not even hungry. And why I’m drawn to the same foods again and again.

I heard a rumour that cake served with fruit on pretty china, has much less calories than regular cake….

In contrast anything soft, soggy or watery is stomach churning. It’s why I can’t enjoy soft fruits and why fragrant but watery soups and noodles make me feel nauseous just by looking at them.

I clearly remember a school holiday when I was 13 – it was a ‘PGL’ adventure trip. We had to make up our own pack lunch each day and the teacher supervising lunches insisted I pack an orange. Now I really didn’t like oranges. The stringy white pith all over them freaked me out. The leaky juiciness was far too messy. And the squishy texture made my stomach turn. So there I was half way up a mountain in Wales and said teacher reminds me to eat my orange. I reluctantly commenced the unpeeling, trying hard to remove all the pith. It was quite a small orange, more of a large clementine, and I suddenly thought if I shoved it in all at once I could get it over and done with. So that’s what I did. I put the orange in my mouth whole….

I tried to chew but a combination of the texture and size of it made me gag, then inhale. The orange became stuck in my throat and I was choking. The terrifying thing was, I wasn’t making a sound. I couldn’t make a sound. So I just stumbled around flapping my arms in panic until a teacher realised what was happening and gave me an almighty whack on the back. The orange shot out. The still whole, saliva covered orange. The astonished stares of my classmates burned into me, more painful than the burning in my throat. Such is my phobia of food I don’t like, that I almost killed myself trying to avoid it!

At 46 I still struggle with managing my eating habits and maintaining a healthy weight. I understand how to eat healthily and I love to exercise but my motivation and commitment fluctuate and therefore so does my weight.

Back in my twenties when I first became overweight, my weight loss journey became my special interest. My Autistic brain performs best when I can hyper focus.,So food diary’s and portion control and intense exercise became my hyper focus to the exclusion of most other things. It’s not so easy now to hyper focus when you have two young children to look after…That’s not an excuse that’s my truthful experience.

So I’m trying to find a balance. Eating healthily as a family. Doing exercise together that everyone enjoys. That’s why I bought Guinevere my trusty trike! I haven’t yet found a solution to the sensory cravings I fulfil by eating, but I’m trying to use mind over matter and talk myself out of reaching for food unless I’m sure I’m hungry. Mindfulness is also helpful to improve your ability to read your body’s internal signals. Think of it as fine tuning your radio reception, so that you get a clear signal instead of a crackly, fuzzy one!

My children, the family I’ve created with my husband, are my hyper focus. Meeting their needs and having fun and adventures with them takes priority over everything else and I choose to live this way. Before I know it they’ll be more interested in going out with their friends than rock-pooling or cycling trips or family movie nights.

Ultimately food is fuel, we all need it to survive. But for Autistic individuals like me, the sensory relationship between what we eat and drink and how we feel is an important one to explore. If we can satisfy our sensory cravings with healthier options that still provide the texture, colour and taste we need; if we can learn to interpret our bodies signals so we don’t confuse thirst, boredom or tiredness with hunger; then we can achieve a healthy lifestyle and maintain a healthy weight without it becoming an obsession or a burden.

Healthy eating can be colourful, interesting and delicious but it takes time to prepare. My husband is a phenomenal cook but very busy with his job. On weekends and holidays he spoils me with tasty, homemade vegetarian meals.

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