Trigger warning: Food, eating, and eating disorders.
For many people, regardless of neurotype, food is a sensitive issue. That’s why I’d like to start this article by saying I’ll be mentioning food, social eating, and eating disorders for those who would rather skip this read if it’s a triggering topic.
If you’re here because you believe your autistic employee (or any of your employees) saying ‘no’ to birthday cupcakes when they make the rounds, or quickly slipping past the bagel table in the conference room without picking one up, means they are rude, ungrateful, snobby, or picky, I need you to carefully consider the information I’m about to offer you.
In this next part, we’ll look at three common reasons your autistic employees may avoid offerings of food (that have nothing to do with rudeness).
1. Food Allergies/Sensitivities
I was diagnosed with gluten intolerance almost 20 years ago, and at that time, hardly anybody knew about this condition. Before the age of 22, my stomach hurt every single day, and I had no idea why.
I kept getting sicker and sicker until I finally saw a naturopathic physician who put me on an elimination diet, and, after a few days, I noticed my stomach didn’t hurt anymore, and my life-long brain fog cleared.
As soon as I added gluten back into my diet, BAM, the pain and brain fog returned with a vengeance!
Again, since gluten intolerance and celiac disease hadn’t yet hit the mainstream, I was forever having to turn down food, explain my condition, deal with disbelieving looks and being told I was rude and/or dramatic, and sticking out like a sore thumb eating food that was obviously different from everyone else’s.
It got to the point where I just avoided food-related situations altogether because it took so much energy to explain why I wasn’t eating what everyone else was eating, and why I always came in with a bowl of my own samefood (a safe food of an autistic person’s choice that is often eaten repetitively) to work instead of ordering out.
While there is much more widespread knowledge of celiac disease and other autoimmune conditions that require special diets, there are plenty of people with a medical need to avoid foods such as gluten, soy, dairy, etc., who are still questioned, scrutinized, disbelieved, and bullied about their food allergies–and that should never happen.
2. Taste/Texture Aversions
Another reason your autistic employee may turn down food is due to food aversions. These are not the same as allergies because eating the food doesn’t cause physical symptoms due to the body being unable to tolerate it, but due to the person’s sensory system not being able to tolerate it.
For many autistic people, the smell, taste, and texture of certain foods can be so repulsive to our senses that we cannot even be around them, let alone swallow them.
Unfortunately, people who do not have these types of sensory sensitivities often dismiss them as “picky eating” when they see it in others. They (wrongly) believe that the person just doesn’t care for the taste, but if they try it enough, they’ll either grow to like it, or their aversion will fade over time.
This is not the case!
First, it has been scientifically proven that autistic people do not desensitize to sensory input the way neurotypical people do. Second, food aversion isn’t just a mild dislike of something, it’s a feeling of deep disgust, which can bring about fear and anxiety from being forced or coerced into eating said food.
Asking an autistic person to eat a food they are averse to would be like me handing you a bowl of slugs and a spoon and saying, “Bon appetit!” and then getting offended when you didn’t eagerly and happily swallow each one while simultaneously praising my culinary prowess.
Gross, huh? Don’t force people to eat foods they’re averse to.
3. Restrictive Food Intake
Avoidant/Restrictive Food Intake Disorder (ARFID) is a type of eating disorder that, unlike anorexia and bulimia, has nothing to do with body image, but instead, stems from intense food aversions. People with ARFID may feel intense anxiety even being in proximity to foods they are averse to, and bribing, guilting, and cajoling someone with this sensory condition into eating an averse food only compounds the person’s struggle.
Avoiding Food Should Not “Count Against” Any Employee
Food isn’t just nutrition; it’s social, it’s communal, and it’s often used as a way to show love, care, and appreciation for others. Therefore, people who don’t partake in social gatherings involving food are often misinterpreted as standoffish, rude, snobby, or picky–even when they’re open about how food affects them differently.
Now that you’re aware of the struggle many autistic people have with food, I hope you’ll remind yourself that someone turning down a treat you’ve made or bought is not a slight against you, nor does it have any hidden social agenda.
Whether or not your autistic employee partakes in communal meals should have no bearing on how they are treated or viewed, socially or professionally.
What they eat or don’t eat has nothing to do with their heart, their mind, or their ability to do their job. It doesn’t even have any bearing on their ability to socialize–unless those around them make it an issue.
When you eliminate unnecessary social expectations and respect individual boundaries, you create a safer, more comfortable working environment for not only your autistic employees but for everyone–employees and customers alike!