Autism and “Safe” Foods

For neurotypical people, it can be frustrating dealing with autistic food sensitivities — which are often thought of as “preferences,” but I wanted to write a short piece to try to explain that what foods I like are not the same as what foods are “safe” for me. You might think of these foods as “comfort” foods, but they are also not foods that I eat when I want to be comforted or that I have a lot of choice in eating.

For me, my list of safe foods include things like mashed potatoes (which I like) and bananas (which I don’t like). I eat a lot of bananas because they are easily available, especially at races. Mashed potatoes, for obvious reasons, are not readily available in packs to serve to racers at aid stations, nor are they at finish lines or start areas. But bananas are always there, and even if I dislike the flavor of bananas and the texture, they never make me vomit. So I eat them if they are available.

Many races have begun to offer whatever nutrition is offered to them for free at races, and this includes things I’ve never tasted before. At a recent race, there were new sports gels offered that I at first assumed would be like the sports gels I’d had before. Reader: they were not. They were the most disgusting things I had ever put in my mouth before, and that says a lot because I’ve eaten sports chews that had been run over by a car and had gravel in them when necessary because I needed calories and those were the only ones I could find that I could get my mouth to eat and my stomach to process.

Serving whatever is offered for free may be only annoying to other racers, but to autistic racers, it means that we are in serious jeopardy. I deal with this often by assuming I have to carry all my own calories, but in longer distances, 50 running miles or Ironman, for instance, it can be logistically difficult to do this. Hence, the default to bananas.

I know that neurotypical people think that this is a silly “preference” and that if I just forced myself to eat unfamiliar food that taste terrible, I would just digest it and then be able to move forward just fine. But this isn’t the way it works with my body. I wish it did. This is one of the ways in which I really hate being autistic because my body doesn’t just do what I tell it to do or what would be convenient to do. I can’t make it digest food that isn’t “safe.” I suppose this may be some kind of hyper-aversion to food that may be poisoned, but it’s damned inconvenient.

Safe foods are also important for times when I am severely stressed, at work or in my personal life. When I’m dealing with suicidal thoughts, for instance, which is unfortunately all too common, I’m not going to be able to eat a healthy salad. My mouth and jaw will just decide they’d rather starve than keep putting energy into chewing. I might want to eat a salad, but it isn’t going to happen. And not eating will make my depression worse (I know this from sad experience), so I will default to bananas, which require almost no effort, canned soup, which is easy, or mashed potatoes if I can stir the energy to make them or if a friend will bring me some.

None of these behaviors are designed to annoy other people or to draw attention to myself. This is one of the most frustrating parts of being autistic and trying to explain myself to neurotypical people. You make the assumption that the motives for my behavior are neurotypical, but they aren’t. I don’t do this stuff to rise up the social hierarchy ladder, which I never think about nor care about rising up on. Whatever the reasons are, they aren’t about you — they’re chemical or biological and I don’t have control over them.

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