One of the joys of food is that you can pick and choose what you eat each and every day without any concerns. For people with autism, this isn’t quite the same story.

People with autism have to navigate through their food differently which can be challenging.

Food is an integral part of our lives, providing nourishment, pleasure, and even a connection with a heritage for some.

Many people across the world might label themselves ‘foodies’, not understanding how others are so picky or how they would prefer to eat common ‘beige’ foods over traditional ethnic dishes and culinary explosions at boujee fusion restaurants. 

But the reality of many people with autism is not as simple as just being picky or preferring beige foods. Their relationship with food may be complex and challenging, and definitely not done on purpose. 

“If an autistic person is eating in a way you consider ‘odd’, and it’s not harming anyone else, then just let them. Don’t try and prevent it, don’t joke about it and don’t even draw attention to it if possible. Just let them eat in whatever way is comfortable for them”

Jess Owens, blogger

Dr Hana Patel, GP specialist in mental health and a GP expert witness, told Behind the Bite that food aversions in autistic people can be tricky to navigate since autism is a spectrum disorder, and so it’s not possible to generalise the relationship between autistic people and food.

She said: “Each [autistic] person’s experience with food will be unique, however, there are clear patterns in feeding that many people would recognise, with some people having more severe challenges than others.”

Food aversions are broad and vary from person to person, but they often stem from an intense dislike of a specific food, which can lead to uncomfortable physical and even mental symptoms.  And while anyone can develop a food aversion, a recent scientific review has found that people with autism are five times more likely than neurotypical people to experience challenges surrounding food and mealtime.

Some of these challenges are more common than others and are characterised as “pickiness”, like food neophobia, anxiety, and extreme selectivity.

But there are many other challenges that can affect autistic people that are less known by neurotypical people, making them even more difficult to navigate. An example of this is sensory sensitivity, which 27-year-old blogger Jess Owen struggles with.

Jess, who was diagnosed with autism at 25, says: “I very rarely eat out of my house, as I have considerable sensory issues when it comes to eating sounds.

“Things like people chewing with their mouths open and the scraping of metal cutlery are so intense for me that I often have to cover my ears, which is something I’d rather not do in public. At home, I eat with mostly plastic cutlery to avoid this, but this is seldom an option in restaurants.

My autism means that I naturally gravitate towards foods that are basic and sugary- ‘kids party food’, is how I describe it. And ideally, I like eating things separately, rather than spreading it out throughout the course of an evening. I don’t mind if things touch on my plate, but I can’t have more than one thing in my mouth at once.”

Business owner Emily has also struggled with food aversions her whole life, despite only being diagnosed with autism two and a half years ago. 

Emily’s autism means that mushy and soft textures can provoke her sensory and anxiety issues, normally leading her to avoid all fruits and vegetables in case they’re not safe for her. This not only impacts her home life but also her social life, as she tends to avoid eating out due to anxiety about menus and what might be served.

But because of this, she is categorised as fussy and difficult.

“People just label me a picky eater, I wish it was as simple as that. If I could then I would eat fruit. In fact, I wish it was that easy

“I like the taste of things like strawberries. I just can’t guarantee what it will feel like so it’s safer to avoid it.”

(Pictured above, Emily, business owner and blogger)

It’s hard to imagine how food can manifest as anxiety for some, but this is the reality for lots of neurodivergent people.

As noted by Dr Patel, autistic people process information differently from others, usually having a need for ‘sameness’ in their life, which therefore is translated into their meals. This is where the ‘beige-ness’ ridicule can enter, as safe foods tend to look similar in appearance to common childhood dishes like bread and pasta. 

This can also lead to the development of specific rules being needed for mealtime, for example “a preference of sticking to the same routine, wanting to always use the exact same utensil/plate, and wanting food presented in a specific way”, said Dr Patel.

The topic is not too mainstream online, leading to harmful assumptions and stereotypes about picky food circulating online. But if you want to support your autistic friends with their food aversions, Jess has suggested a few ways neurotypical people can help.

“If an autistic person is eating in a way you consider ‘odd’, and it’s not harming anyone else, then just let them. Don’t try and prevent it, don’t joke about it (unless you know they won’t mind), and don’t even draw attention to it if possible. Just let them eat in whatever way is comfortable for them.

 “And if an autistic person reacts to food or eating in a way that is considered rude- spitting something out, putting their hands over their ears, just getting up and walking out then try not to take offence. It’s not about you; they’re just trying to get by” she says.

As Emily previously mentioned, autistic people don’t ask or want to view food in this way. Understanding and sympathising with food aversions is crucial for the overall well-being of anyone experiencing this.