I am the girl in the red floral dress, deeply contemplating a cheese roll, sitting next to my younger brother and two cousins, at my Grandpa’s house in Stratford Upon Avon. It is the long summer holidays (my parents, brother and I were staying at a nearby caravan site, which I remember with nostalgic affection, as we went there every year until I was 10), and I am a happy child relishing this picnic full of all my favourite food. I can see pork pie on my cousin’s plate – I would have already eaten mine, along with endless bread sticks dunked in hummus.
Food is a lifelong interest.
Many of my memories involve food: Being at nursery school and chewing the paper cases of cup cakes until every last ounce of sweet liquid was extracted; the school Christmas party which contained all the chocolate, crisps and sausage rolls I was often denied at home; the excitement age 6 of being at a curry house and licking all the different spicy spoons; the smell of garlic sausages emanating from my mum’s backpack while on holiday in Devon, as we walked back to the caravan site across the moors; gobbling huge slices of pork pie at my Grandpa’s house (he knew how much I had pork pie, tuna, and potatoes on the brain); watching the eggs in the see through pan on the gas hob at my Grandpa’s house (I loved the way the water bubbled and rose to the top of the eggs); fresh bread from the bakers with salmon or tuna at Grandpa’s – and the very first thing I usually asked him was, ”what are we having for dinner? ”.
I could go on and on, but other memories include: The children’s story about the giant jam sandwich (pictured above) or the one about the toast soldiers with egg that made me want to eat these items; writing up pretend menus (my mums ingenious way of getting me to practice writing); cooking with mum using my ‘food around the world cook book’ and ‘cooking for beginners’; the bag of toy plastic food and life like fried egg that I received for my 9th birthday, which made me so happy; my very first lunch box; going back for more and more pizza and ice cream at school camp (”I don’t know where you put it”, the head teacher told me, considering how tiny I was); memorising the contents of every child’s lunchbox and talking about this at length to close family members; looking at every food item in the supermarket and then listing the product ingredients to my mum when going for walks on holiday …. you must be able to see a pattern emerging…
Food, in short, is my main life force. I love the sensory pleasure gleaned from food, as long as I am in control of the process. I have to eat at set times, partly because I take food very seriously and need to be able to enjoy the food without any distractions. A nice sandwich is wasted if you are eating it while walking! You will rarely see me snacking on the move, and I feel stressed if I am with someone else who has a habit of doing this, not least because smelling and hearing someone eating food out of context, is very distracting. I think that food should be enjoyed in a zen like atmosphere, mindfully and peacefully. When I was a teenager I took this effort to enjoy food to extremes. For example, I spent the whole morning slowly eating a huge chocolate Easter egg, bit by bit, while my brother ate his very quickly and all in one go. I would also strictly organise how I ate my food, so that sometimes, in spring, I would still be working my way through chocolates I had received at Christmas!. This need to enjoy food can also result in anxiety because noise or other distractions interfere with the need to focus one hundred percent on tasting the food. I can only pay attention to one sense at a time.
In the picture above I am sitting on my Aunty’s knee holding my brand new school lunch-box. I was looking forward to starting primary school, and I loved the idea of eating lunch from this beautiful box. Lunch and food were the motivational highlights, particularly the break-time banana. This banana was placed in the front compartment of my back-pack, and at break-time I was so happy to get out my banana!. I wonder if any other child has ever been this happy over such a seemingly trivial part of a day?!. In a world that was generally stressful, food was, and is my anchor, a constant source of pleasure and delight, within a reassuring safety net of routine.
Ironically, however, I developed anxiety around food as a teenager. My food technology teacher told the class about hygiene and how to avoid cross contamination. Of course it was important for us all to know this, but I did not know how to interpret the information. In order to protect myself, I stopped eating fresh meat, fish, and even eggs. It was only in my 20s, once I started receiving autism specific support after diagnosis, that I gradually began to overcome my food related OCD. I still struggle with some OCD around food, but it is no way near as bad as it was. For a long time, I only ate food from two supermarkets, and avoided most brands. This was all after the cadbury’s salmonella scandal, but in my mind this meant that any food could be contaminated. Of course, logically, the supermarket food was equally likely to be contaminated, but this food just felt safer, probably because it was already familiar.
I have become better at logical thinking as I have grown older, and although I am still wary of cadburys (it is hard for me to regain trust if that trust has been violated by a scandal, no matter how long ago), I will now often try new brands. In fact, food is one of the few areas where I actually now enjoy variety, as long as I am in control. I would like to try as many different recipes as possible, and this usually means that I rarely go more than two days eating exactly the same meal. I do believe that my special interest in food has been an extra source of motivation, helping me to overcome this particular OCD. It could strangely be the case that autism has been helpful, because if I had OCD without autism, the OCD might actually be far worse!. This is because Autism, in my case, makes me very focused and determined, within areas of interest and routine, to pursue my passions, even if this means having to face my fears.
But it would be a lot harder for me to overcome my fears without the amazing support I get from Alongside Autism, which has been far far better than any therapy I have received in the past from mainstream mental health services. For autistic people it is very important to have regular, consistent support from people who understand autism, and someone to talk to at your own pace who can build confidence and thus foster self improvement. I feel very lucky that I live in an area where I can get this support.
Lately I am slowly overcoming my cooking fresh fish OCD. I want to eat fish because I care a lot about getting the right nutrition (I have read nutrition books for University undergraduates, although I have never taken a formal course in the subject), and fish contains heart and brain healthy omega 3. In a cost/benefit analysis I have worked out that the benefits far out-way any slight risks from eating this food. I have to wear gloves when handling the fish, and my OCD is triggered around raw fish, but at least I am now cooking and eating fish, whereas only a year ago I was having huge meltdowns if I so much as noticed fish in the fridge at my dad’s!!
I am glad that my autism gives me such motivational interests. They are the silver lining or the good side of the Double Edged Sword of Autism.