Good morning. It’s Tuesday. I regret to inform you that I have yet to settle into a solid schedule with regard to when I write my blog post for this semester, so I’ve sort of been flying by the seat of my pants ever since I moved back in— i.e. just writing the blog whenever I get the time to do so. As such, this is going up a little later than I would have liked it to, but really, I can’t complain or beat myself up too much, because it’s still Tuesday. Tuesday morning, even. So let’s go ahead and get started, before I delay this any more than I already have.
As I promised you last week, this post is going to be the follow-up in a two-part series about notable changes that I have to adjust to as I enter the new school year. I did a lot of lamenting last week about how I had gotten used to a certain housing situation, and how since my housing has changed slightly, I’m adjusting to a new situation this semester. The overarching theme of this two-part series is, generally, to show you how much it can sometimes take for autism to adjust to even minor changes in predicted routine. In the cases of housing and food, the latter of which is what we’re going to talk about today, I’m adjusting to something new despite having been very used to what I had before. That can be a difficult process, and it’s my goal to show you that through these two posts.
So without further ado: food! I honestly haven’t written about food as much on this blog as there are things to say about it. Food is a huge part of my life, and not just for the obvious reason that you have to eat to life. Meals, particular foods, and eating habits are things that are ingrained extremely deeply into my routine. We talked about this once before, in this post, where I showed you what my food schedule looks like. Today, I want to talk about my diet as it specifically pertains to college, and some of the difficulties I’ve been having recently.
As was the case last week with my long tangent about housing and medical accommodations, I need to give you a little bit of background before I get into my regularly scheduled griping. The transition to college, with regard to food and my eating schedule, was a big one— in terms of the plain fact that I wouldn’t be able to eat my mom’s familiar cooking every night for dinner, and that I wouldn’t be regularly shopping at a grocery store to ensure I could secure safe foods. We’ll talk about what I mean when I say ‘safe food’ in a few paragraphs, but for now, I’ll tell you that the transition to college with regard to my diet and food schedule was a little tough, but not impossible. I realized relatively quickly once I got to campus my freshman year that the dining hall sold a lot of foods which would work within my food schedule, and it didn’t take terribly long for me to settle into a new, slightly altered, college-edition food schedule.
A ‘food schedule,’ by the way, refers to the extremely regimented and often repetitive nature of my diet. I would consider it a major part of my autistic routine-adherent nature that I insist on eating pretty much the same foods every day on a steady schedule. I might eat different types of the same food— for example, I always have a serving of fruit with my breakfast, and although there are some fruits that I enjoy more over others, I’ll consider that aspect of my food schedule for the day to be fulfilled as long as I get some kind of a fruit serving. The same goes for having cereal for breakfast. I have an unofficial list of ‘acceptable’ cereals, which includes pretty much any flavor of Cheerios or Chex, most bran-based cereals, and a few others, and as long as I get one of those, I consider it in line with my food schedule.
So I have some flexibility, but it’s important to me that I check off certain ‘genres’ of food in my diet. A violation of my food schedule would be to skip the morning fruit serving. This might be hard to understand if you aren’t autistic, but I feel a genuine physiological reaction to that kind of interruption to my diet; I physically don’t feel well until I fall back into a routine that’s familiar. I think there’s something to be said for the impact of routine on the physical well-being of autistic people, and the issues that can arise in the case of some kind of routine violation. But as I’ve told you many times, I’m not a doctor. I can only speak to my own experience.
The short version of what I’ve been trying to say for the past few paragraphs is this: I have a food schedule. It consists of square meals with categorized servings of types of food that I like to include, such as cereal and fruit for breakfast every day. Since coming to college, I’ve fallen into what I would say is almost a more regimented food schedule than the one I had at high school and in the years prior, because the nice thing about a college dining hall is that it’s always the same.
Except when it’s not. And that’s where the reason for my writing this post today comes in.
Over the summer, my college changed dining service providers. This has been the source of a lot of grief from the student body, for some honestly pretty valid reasons, since there are some issues in dining services right now that I won’t really get into aside from what pertains to my autistic food schedule issues directly. Which I will now tell you about. The changes being implemented to dining services on my college campus ever since I arrived in August are affecting my food schedule, to the point where I’m eating way less than I should be. The reason for this is the lack of availability of ‘safe foods.’ And yes, now I’ve reached the part of the post where I tell you what I mean by ‘safe foods.’
To begin, I’ll let you know that I didn’t know of the term ‘safe food’ until relatively recently, but it’s entered my vocabulary, and I’ve found it very useful. I saw it in the context of a video that came up in my suggested on Instagram, where the mom of an autistic child walked her viewers through steps for recovery after a meltdown that she and her daughter found helpful. The video included “eating safe foods” as a suggestion, and showed her daughter having a banana. I realized that I knew exactly what the mom meant by ‘safe foods’— she was referring to the list of foods which her daughter would always eat, and which therefore could be counted on as something to include in her diet. In essence, ‘safe foods’ are, yes, sort of just foods that a person likes, but in the specifically autistic case, they’re familiar foods which contribute to a sense of routine.
Some examples of safe foods for me are whole fruits like apples and oranges, certain brands of granola bars, Honey Nut Cheerios, avocados, and various meals that I’ve gotten used to like things my mom makes or things they used to serve in the dining hall. These are things I can always count on being able to eat, even if I’m feeling particularly stubborn in the food department. Eating is another aspect of my life that’s extremely regimented, and like I said earlier, I’ll feel genuinely thrown-off if I don’t know what foods I can count on to eat, if any foods are going to be safe, or if I don’t eat in my ‘correct schedule.’
In the past, my regimented food habits have gotten really bad. On my eighth grade trip to Washington, DC, I lived off of snacks my mom had packed me and random drinks like iced tea and lemonade, because our teachers took us to restaurants that didn’t serve any safe foods. A concerned teacher contacted my mom, because she thought I was struggling with an eating disorder. In reality, this stubbornness was just a part of autistic routine adherence showing itself.
I’m like that about food to this day, but as an adult with my own money, I’m more able to control whether or not there are going to be safe foods around. This change in dining services at my college, though, has been a huge difficulty. Whole fruits are pretty much the only safe foods that remain at my disposal. I’m living on hummus and random vegetables, whatever fruit I can get my hands on, garlic bread from the bakery, and Raisin Bran. Nothing else is safe, and it’s caused a major disruption to my predicted college routine. Going home for the weekend has been the only way I’m able to get my hands on what people would consider a balanced dinner.
Another way to read this, which would be completely and entirely accurate, is that I am an extremely picky eater. This is true, but it’s because I’m autistic, and I think my and other autistic people’s picky eating is a little more complicated to explain or understand than your average person’s picky eating. This is part of the way my brain is wired, and it’s making it really difficult to figure out what to eat at college right now. I thought I would be able to count on one more year of the familiar dining hall food I was used to, but as in the case of my dorm, I find myself having to adjust to something new all over again.
In a way, being forced to adjust to new things is good, because it builds my endurance for the real world. But I’m kind of getting sick of eating pre-packaged cucumber and hummus. And it’s only September 14th. In the food department, this might be a long year.
Next Time: On my skills as a leader, or lack thereof.