When I was younger, I knew I was different from other people. I never understood why, and this led me to try to amend myself to “fit in.” I mirrored appropriate reactions and behaviors and ended up trying to “look like” everybody else. I changed my appearance in ways involving weight and style, becoming obsessed to a level where I made myself sick, counted calories extensively, and exhibited restrictive behaviors.
This, coupled with my dislike of textures, were major factors in my development of an eating disorder. With therapy and support, I am growing more able to identify and cope with my eating habits and thoughts, as well as the fact I am autistic. Because I am autistic, I have issues with sensory processing and social interactions, which can cause me a lot of anxiety and nervousness.
Understanding and planning around how we operate can make a big difference in our recovery. Here are five ways that I’ve learned to develop healthier attitudes around food and weight:
1. Try not to talk about calories.
As someone who likes things to be very “black and white,” this can lead to extreme calorie counting. Try to remember that the calorie count does not represent the nutritious content within the food. Numbers can be very dangerous to someone who dislikes grey areas, as they can be very controlled. I tend to follow rules to the letter and can become very carried away with that. Focusing upon the food chart – identifying meals that cover the food groups – can be an easier way to ensure that a healthy diet is followed, rather than counting calories.
2. It isn’t all about appearance.
The media focuses very much upon appearance, and when we know we’re different, it can be an easy thing to concentrate on changing. Focus more upon how you feel, rather than what you look like. Food can have a massive impact on our mood, and if we are feeling skittish due to low consumption or too much sugar, this can create more anxiety, especially in social situations.
3. Make a meal plan.
This doesn’t work for everyone, but as an autistic person, I can become very worn out at the end of a day and very anxious at the start. Knowing what I am eating and preparing it beforehand reduces the number of decisions that I have to make and allows my energy to be directed elsewhere. The meal plan can include a choice or two, but don’t overcomplicate it. It can be calming to have a plan in place, an area of control without it becoming unhealthy or obsessive.
4. Foods are not “good” or “bad.”
With black-and-white thinking, it can be easy to categorize foods and label them as one thing or another. This means that certain foods are highly consumed whilst others are totally avoided. Having food in “moderation” is hard to understand, as that can be a grey area. Support can be needed to try new recipes or vary diets to include foods we’re not used to eating. This can be exacerbated when stressed or when things are spiraling out of our control. It’s easy to lapse into only eating certain foods and not trying any new ones, so introduce foods slowly and remember that there is no such thing as “bad” or “good” foods.
5. You do not have to “fit in.”
For me, knowing that I was different was the hardest part and was a massive influence on my eating behaviors. I felt wrong in every way and “fat” became something to focus upon. Rather than focusing upon the differences, turn them into positives. Our unique perspective of the world doesn’t mean that it is a negative one, just different. Different is not wrong. Being autistic can present challenges and there can be times when we have to work harder than others, but embracing who we are can be a way to tackle any harmful thoughts about ourselves and our behaviors.
These ideas may not apply to everyone who is autistic, but I hope they help someone. Being an autistic woman, it is easy to go undiagnosed and many of our thought patterns are invisible, but that does not mean that they do not exist and that does not mean we don’t deserve support.
Having autism presents challenges, and we don’t need to add to them by beating ourselves up over who we are. Understanding those challenges and having support can mean a lot, and I hope that this article has added a little to that, without diminishing anyone’s experience.
Annabelle is a UK-based writer who completed a degree in psychology and hopes to go into sport and exercise psychology. Annabelle loves running, dancing, cups of tea, Harry Potter, and spending time with friends. She has fought various mental health problems and is beginning to come out the other side of them. She hopes to use her experience to help other people.