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Autism and eating: compassion and connection

Lucy Skye is a trainer and consultant at The National Autistic Society and was recently diagnosed as autistic. Here Lucy explores the role that food plays in bonding people together, and suggests that society needs to be more compassionate and understanding of those who may find these situations difficult.

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Author: Lucy Skye

Autism and eating: compassion and connection

I wasn’t planning on writing a follow up article to Autism and controlled eating, although I recognise that I barely touched the surface on the topic of eating previously. 

I’m struck (and overwhelmingly touched) by the amount and depth of comments and feedback that have arisen. From autistic adults and young people identifying with the scenarios I described. From parents and carers who feel they have more of an insight into their loved one and from professionals who can bring elements and ideas from the article into their work. 

The huge amount of compassion that has been expressed made me think more about the emotional and relational depth both eating and feeding can create. In our society many of us form bonds, we nurture each other, through our eating. I’m interested in exploring how we support ourselves to bring more compassion to our behaviours and our understanding of others, particularly over something as fundamental as food. 

“Bonding” over food

You only have to browse through an online article or open a magazine to find pictures and videos of people apparently ‘bonding’ over food, whether that is cooking together, going out for dinner, or sharing photos of their latest meal with followers. The messages portrayed are ‘this will make you feel positive’, ‘this will bring you closer to your loved ones’, ‘this will make you fit in with what everyone else is doing.’ 

But when I look over yet another advert telling me that X brand of gravy is the antidote to my family woes, I do not feel hopeful, warm and fuzzy, I feel alone. I feel alone because I know that doing these food-related activities will not ‘make’ me closer to another, it will set me further apart. 

Take for example a situation where a colleague brings in some homemade cake for the office. For me it is cake that I was not expecting – I don’t want to eat it, I don’t know where it fits in my routine. I like the colleague and don’t want them to feel I don’t appreciate their actions. Do I take a piece, hate eating every mouthful and have a meltdown later on? Do I select a slice, squirrel it away and dispose of it at a later point, pretending it was lovely? Do I say ‘no thanks’ and risk being gently hassled by those around me to please accept, or told ‘I wish I could resist like you’. 

Ultimately I don’t want to make any of those decisions. One will cause me high anxiety, one will go inherently against my principles of truthfulness and the other will risk upsetting a friend. 

This is one of those scenarios where there is no ‘right’ answer. I fear the situation and the person’s response. If I trust someone enough, I may share with them the reasons I rarely accept random food offerings, but this is a lot to disclose. 

However I also feel that others place meaning or worth through the giving and receiving of food. The disappointment friends feel if I don’t go to their birthday meal or meet them for a coffee may be more rooted in these feelings of worth rather than my actions.

I have friends who connect with each other primarily over food and cooking. This is a way they strengthen their bonds with each other. It is not something they can honestly do with me. The joy in giving food may be even greater for parents and carers when looking to nurture and support their child, but emotional understanding is also a need that also needs to be met. 

It is important for me to recognise what someone else may lose because I am unable to connect in this way. I have spent many hours beating myself up for their loss. That if I could only sort myself out or be braver, or manage myself better, it would make others happier.  

Today, I can’t pretend I never do that. But I have more appreciation that we are two people, coming from two different places, with conflicting needs. Somehow, if possible, we need to find some common ground that is easier for us both, or at least have respect for the other’s position.  

With this in mind I want to share a range of comments I have heard/experienced around food that although often throwaway and not intended to cause any offence, can have an impact on me. However I want to give you my thoughts because I think by adapting language subtly there is a much greater insight that can be shared. 

‘You’re so good around food’

The idea we place weight on ‘good’ or ‘bad’ is incomprehensible to me. Foods and our behaviours do not have a moral compass but an emotional root. Morality is ours to own and we should leave food out of it.

‘I’d never have thought you’d eat something like that!’

What are you saying about me? Who do you think I am? How am I supposed to be around you now I have no idea what impression you have? 

‘It won’t do you any harm’

Rationally I know that I will likely remain physically fine for eating a potato, but emotionally it will root in my brain, turning my thoughts to Smash.

‘It’s only a little piece’

Compared to what? An elephant? Size is immaterial - if I am uncomfortable I am going to find it incredibly difficult to eat, even if it’s no bigger than a pea.

‘It would be lovely to see you for a meal’

What’s lovely, me or the meal? I’d love to see you but I’d hate the meal so can we find some mutual happy territory instead please.

‘It’s just the same thing you had last time’

No it’s not, because I swallowed that two weeks ago. This is different and you can’t pretend otherwise.

‘Join us, we’re all having some’

Can I be part of the group without eating please? Do you feel awkward if I’m not eating, because I’m certainly not feeling awkward that you are.

‘You must try a bit of this, it’s amazing!’

I’m sure it is. To you. And I’m overjoyed that you are elated by it (honestly), but I can appreciate your wonderment without eating it too. And anyway, what I taste won’t be the same as what you taste, so I’m not sure how you’re expecting this to bond us. 

Emotional understanding

Two of our basic needs are love and emotional understanding. When we receive these, we can learn to be comfortable in ourselves and to develop our self-worth. If I receive criticism and judgement about how and what I eat, how does this help me feel like I belong? 

So what works for me? Well, that’s back to emotional understanding. Those I have a deep connection with respect, tolerate and I hope occasionally delight in my full range of quirks, whether eating-related or not. In turn, I accept them as the person they truly are, and recognise that there may be elements of their behaviour they have had to adjust to meet me where I am at. 

Connecting over food may predominantly sit outside of what is comfortable and manageable for me. But it doesn’t mean that I don’t recognise its importance to others, and appreciate the misinterpretation and conflict that can arise if my motives and limits are not recognised. 

We cannot ever fully understand another person’s life experience and how they perceive the world. What we can do is open our awareness to others’ experience and listen to what it means to them. This may be quite easy with people that we have similar thoughts, feelings and experiences to, but it can be a lot harder when someone seems very different. Fundamental to this is the acceptance and recognition of the person as a unique individual, and embracing all that they are.

Date added: 21 August 2018