When food disappeared from the world

Back when I started to learn about autism and sensory sensitivities, I learned that one possible sensitivity people can have is food sensitivity. Since I am one of those people whose major sensory sensitivities are seasonal or attack-like, I tucked this information into the corner of my mind. From what I had read, I gathered that food sensitivity was a multisensory disorder, resulting in ”eating difficulties” and ”limited eating” because for the person suffering from it, food does not taste or feel like it is supposed to. In hindsight, I learned something but understood nothing.

I’m the one who often finds something fascinating and beautiful even from most strenuous and invalidizing sensory issues (more about this later). But when it comes to food sensitivity, I want to start with saying that if it attacks me again in next life, it will be too soon. For starters, sensitivity to food starts with food disappearing from the world -and I mean this very literally. In best case, contents of a refridgerator appear like kitchen rug: non-edible things. At worst, they resembled rotting trash heaps. So before one starts ”encouraging” someone struggling with this sensitivity to eat, I highly recommend testing one’s talents by motivating themselves first to eat a bowl of nutritious chicken crap-based fertilizer. Just try hard, and desensitize yourself! A human being must eat in order to live! Once you get the first spoonfuls down, the rest will be easier!

So, I found myself living for over two months on five foods. One of my first realizations was, that food sensitivity is not limited to mealtimes. Oh no. It also makes shopping food or seeing food in other contexts horrible struggle. Scent of fresh bread? I wanted to vomit. Beautiful coffee service with delicious pastries? I could feel my face turn green with disgust. And so on. All warm food was disgusting ”goo” just at level of thought. Soft bread felt like prickly sawdust, and chunky foods felt like lego blocks -though unlike these foods, sawdust smelled quite fresh and lego blocks didn’t smell at all. Most importantly, neither of these stink like a dead rat wrapped in wet cardboard. When, in the beginning of my food sensitivity episode, I tried to find something edible, I also learned that the few things I found edible had nothing to do with my usual favorite foods. They were quite random foods.

Second thing literature had told me way too vaguely was, that reasoning and willpower are not helpful at all when one’s senses go on strike. It doesn’t help to tell oneself, that something is your favorite food. No, it is not. It is useless to lecture yourself about healthiness, or even remind yourself that a human being must eat. Sure must, but what to do when there simply is no food in sight? Oh, but surely one eats anything if they are hungry enough? No they don’t, for reasons similar to why poor people who have no money for food are not told to stop complaining and just eat their sofas and then proceed to gnaw spruce roots.

Then, we need to discuss hunger. Somehow, I had made the mistake of imagining that sensitivity is something like losing one’s appetite while sick. It certainly was not. For me, appetite and hunger worked just fine. There was just nothing to eat, anywhere, except for those five foods, one of which was unsweetened crushed lingonberries and another fat free Nordic sour milk (in small portions). These five things were handily available in any grocery store -though they were buried among stinking, disgusting and repulsive products. Since vomiting in a grocery store is not socially approved, I usually went grocery shopping only when I was very hungry, thinking dark thoughts about people who think that hunger is the best spice and who find ”limited eating” to be a very professional-sounding description of the crisis one is flung into when food disappears from the world. Such an idiotic term has certainly not been coined by anyone who has had to live for even a few weeks on five random foods, hungry and not knowing when or even if it will end.

In spite of being one of those people for whom weight loss is a positive thing in general, people around me begun to worry as weeks passed. I tried in vain to search a nutritionist who could help a person from whose world food has disappeared. All I could find were examples of autists who were even worse off than I was -people who could only eat margherita pizza or cheeseburgers and therefore had to deal with disapproval for their ”unhealthy diet” on top of everything else. At least my lingonberries didn’t have that issue! Even more concerning were stories about people for whom sensitivity was a permanent part of their autistic setup. As weeks went by, I grew mighty bored with my limited food selection, and foods that I had originally felt ambivalent about, started to really vex me. That didn’t help either, because I still had no alternatives and heartfelt wishes didn’t bring any either. At the time of writing this, three of the five foods I was limited to, are foods I have not eaten after that. None of them is something I ever crave.

In my case, the end was happy. Slowly, I noticed that I could taste something outside my list and that everything did not make me want to puke. In the end, the situation normalized on its own just like it had started. As I noticed that the world around me had not become any kinder place while I had struggled, I started to seriously consider changing the direction of my career and becoming a full-time autism awareness advocate.

Sensory sensitivities are common autist traits, but they are also issues that are difficult to understand well without experiencing them first hand. If you wish to understand sensory sensitivities better, email me @saara.reiman@kaiao.fi. Kaiao offers both ready-made training sessions and tailored services.