January 21, 2021

Autism and eating around others

By rosieweldon

Eating is something that can raise challenges as an autistic person. I have previously written generally about the relationship between autism and eating and also how significant change triggered me to stop eating.

I knew when I entered a relationship that eating would be a hurdle I would have to overcome. It was a hurdle I wasn’t sure I would be able to overcome. I struggle to eat anywhere other than at home or my parent’s home and even at my parent’s I sit on the sofa and not at the table. I can sit at the table if pushed to (Christmas day etc) but generally choose not to. Eating around others, even those I am very familiar with, is extremely difficult.

Upon first visiting my partner’s home I didn’t eat or drink. Both because of issues around physically doing this and being unable to use the toilet. I was upfront with my partner about being unable to do these things and none of it remotely phased her. Her approach was very much that it wasn’t a negative thing, just a part of me and one we would work with. I credit this attitude hugely to getting me from being unable to eat and drink at her home to where I am today. When an autistic mind goes up against something, applying pressure and annoyance is never going to help. In removing the pressure, she allowed my mind space to work through it.

We both agreed that the best approach was a pressure free, phased and casual one. My partner got in bottles of water and energy sweets to try and give my body the minimum nutrition it needed. Even after bottles of water went untouched, she continued to put one beside me. Then one night, I did have some. Once that first drink was taken and using the toilet was overcome, I could then drink there.

Having overcome drinking I was determined to one day overcome eating. Part of me thought it would never be possible to sit at the table with her and her family, another part of me reminded myself of everything I’ve overcome and to not underestimate my sheer determination.

Unfortunately, this transition period of overcoming eating and drinking at my partner’s coincided with a heatwave in the UK. This led to me passing out one morning. The heat combined with a lack of nutrition was too much for my body. This, of course, alarmed my partner. While she was beyond understanding of the difficulty that I faced in eating at her house, she was concerned for my physical wellbeing.

Being able to drink gave my partner the idea for me to consume meal replacement shakes while I was at hers. That way it was still drinking but it was some nutrition for me. While not the same as eating, and I struggled to have much of them, it was far better than sips of water.

She then wanted to cook me tea and I could try to eat it and if I didn’t, then I didn’t. To keep it pressure free and see what happened. After finishing work one evening she was insistent that I go upstairs to relax and de-stress. Upon setting me up with a tablet playing Scorpion (a special interest of mine) she later walked in with a plate of food. She placed it beside me and walked out, closing the door and leaving me in an empty room with Scorpion playing and food to eat. That was the first time I ate food at her house, and I give her points for the thought-out Scorpion plan!

We then stuck to this approach of myself eating tea alone in the bedroom for a while. I longed to sit at the table with them but knew I wasn’t ready. We planned to tackle smaller snack foods to introduce me to eating in the rest of the home. It took a while and many snacks placed beside me went uneaten. But eventually I ate peanut butter on toast (one of my same foods) when alone in the lounge.

This then gradually led onto being able to eat snacks in the evening and toast at the kitchen table. While this was huge progress and steps in the right direction, I still longed to sit with them at the table for the evening meal.

One evening we got a takeaway and I decided it was the perfect time to push myself to eat with them in the lounge. Given the easy nature of the food (no need for knife and fork) and the casual approach of eating on the sofa, it became my first meal eaten with them.

Two months into this pressure free, phased exposure approach to eating at my partner’s home I sat at the dinner table to eat tea with them. It was exhausting and had taken months of determination, but I was incredibly proud to have got to that point.

I had conversations with my partner when I first started spending time there about ‘what if’ I couldn’t ever eat at the table. She was of course absolutely fine if I never could. But it was something that weighed heavily on my mind. Would I permanently feel there but not really there? Involved but not really, if I couldn’t sit at the table for tea? But the thing is, I should have learned a long time ago, that with the right support and the right adjustments, autistic people can do pretty much anything.  The key to the process was removing the pressure and doing it in a very gradual way.

Just last week my partner cooked me my favourite meal. I sat at the table after a long day at work and realised it was the most complicated meal that I had yet faced with them. It was a bigger meal with various foods that needed cutting. As I neared the end of the meal, I quickly became overwhelmed by the whole situation. I hit overload, stopped eating and had to leave to retreat upstairs and cry out the overload.

The journey isn’t always linear. I felt gutted at the setback, days into eating with them every evening. But I was quickly reminded by my partner that it wasn’t a big deal, if sometimes I couldn’t do it, that was fine. It has hit me when writing this blog post at just how far I have come with eating at my partner’s. At times I felt defeated, embarrassed and certainly lost hope in being able to eat with them at the table. But with the patience and understanding of my partner, and determination and persistence on my part, we now eat together at the table.

If an autistic person in your life is facing a hurdle, then please have patience and kindness. It can be something we are desperate to be able to do, but that doesn’t make it any more possible. Eating at the table might seem a small thing to most people, but it was certainly my Mount Everest.

Be patient, be kind.

Found this blog helpful? You can support my writing and say thanks by buying me a coffee 🙂