We live in a society that puts a lot of emphasis on food. Different foods are associated with different cultures, religions, seasons, festivals, celebrations, times of day, etc. For autistic people, food can present many challenges. They often have different sensory experiences than neurotypical people. These include hyper and hypo sensitivities. In relation to eating, this means being more or less sensitive to how foods look, smell, taste and feel. Other sensory systems which are necessary for eating are proprioception (the awareness of self-movement and body position), vestibular (balance) and interoception (the awareness of internal states – including the recognition of hunger and satiety, which is often impaired in autistic people). These sensitivities change and fluctuate all the time. A person can be over and under-sensitive to the same thing on different days and in different situations. All of these sensory differences can make it difficult for autistic people to be comfortable around food.
Autistic people often find routine and structure helpful. In relation to food, this might mean eating the same foods at the same times every day. This is fine, as long as you try to eat a range of foods from each food group – carbohydrate foods like cereals, bread, pasta and rice; protein foods such as meat, poultry, fish, eggs, beans and nuts; dairy, including milk, cheese, yoghurts and alternatives; and fruit and vegetables.
There are lots of scenarios during college life where you might experience challenges associated with food. You might need to move out of your family home and share accommodation with fellow students. In this case, you will likely share a kitchen and dining facilities with others. It might be helpful if you arrange a schedule with your housemates as to when each of you will cook, eat and clean in these areas. For more stressful days, it might be helpful to have some ‘safe’, convenient foods, such as a frozen pizza or a ready meal, in stock for when deciding what to eat feels like too much.
Being on campus might entail buying and eating food in a busy canteen or restaurant. If your timetable permits, try taking your lunchbreak early at noon or so when it may be quieter. If these places are too overwhelming for you, try bringing your own food with you and go to a quieter area such as a nearby park to eat.
Socialising is also an important aspect of college life. You will undoubtedly find yourself being invited to, and almost expected to go to, meals, drinks, nights out and other events, all of which will involve food and copious amounts of alcohol. Of course, by all means go when you want to and are able to but remember that it’s not obligatory every time. If you trust someone and feel comfortable sharing your feelings with them, you could tell them the reasons why you might not always accept their invitations.
It’s important to stress that it’s okay to eat a limited number of foods. It’s okay to eat the same things all the time. It’s okay to eat foods in a particular order or to cut them up or have them at a particular consistency. It’s okay to not meet all the healthy eating guidelines all the time. It’s okay to eat at the same times every day. It’s okay to say no to invitations to dinner/drinks/coffee out when you don’t feel like it. Please remember, this is your college experience and so it should be tailored to suit your needs.
As always, it is important to seek medical advice if you are concerned about your eating habits and health. BodyWhys (www.bodywhys.ie) is a fantastic organisation for help relating to eating disorders, while your campus’s health centre will also offer support and guidance.