Written by Florence Neville
Autism HWB Note: Nutrition is highly individualized and diets that work well for some people can be dangerous for others. Please consult with your physician before making dietary changes to ensure they are right for you.
I have been fascinated by nutrition since I was a child. I remember looking at primary school classmates with grey skin and circles under their eyes and wondering if spending time in the countryside eating ‘real’ bread, butter and fresh vegetables would give them rosy cheeks and add sparkle to their eyes. Maybe this was a side effect of devouring books like Heidi, Milly Molly Mandy and the Famous Five.
As many autistic women will have also experienced, I exploded into my teen years with eating disorders, body dysmorphia, peer pressure and aversions to many tastes and textures. I went vegetarian for several years and vegan for several months. When I was trying to ‘be good’ I attended Slimming World meetings, forced down cottage cheese on dry crackers, and avoided fat at all costs.
The rest of the time I lived to eat sugar and wheat. Chocolate, biscuits, cakes, doughnuts, sugar on toast, sugar sandwiches, cereals piled high with extra sugar, and sugar eaten spoon by spoon straight out of the packet. The rush as the glucose hit my bloodstream followed by a delicious food coma that called forth sleep and excuses and emotional slumber. When other stuff wasn’t going so well, I could do this. I was an expert at it. No substance was too sweet, too sickly, too syrupy. My only challenge was getting enough of it.
A scan of my groaning bookshelves would have revealed calorie counters, odes to wholegrains, and vegan cookbooks; and yet I spent much of my early twenties surviving on toast, instant noodles, Angel Delight and a daily multivitamin. I slept for 13 hours in every 24, suffered paranoia, anxiety, pain, fatigue and bloating. During burnout number four, I took myself to see a kinesiologist and followed her recommendations to spend a full year gluten, dairy and sugar free. My energy returned, my eyes brightened, my depression and anxiety lessened.
I like rules so I took her instructions literally. I did a year, then stopped.
My thirties saw me qualify in nutritional therapy. I wrote long essays on anatomy and physiology, learned the importance of taking a full case history, and was taught how to prescribe supplements. I also learned about how gluten, dairy, sugar and the wrong kinds of fats could trigger many conditions in sensitive people. My clients had amazing results but unfortunately, I forgot to apply any of my hard-earned knowledge to myself. Masking meant coffee mornings with other mothers, stuffing myself with cake. These mornings exhausted me. Exhaustion meant biscuits. So many biscuits.
My forties saw my worst ever burnout. A year and a half of sheer hell. I don’t need to describe it, if you are also autistic, you’ve probably experienced it at least once. Then somehow, I managed to put what little energy I had into following the primal diet. Over the course of a year my physical and mental health turned around completely. I slept at night, bounded out of bed in the morning, stopped crying every day, trained for and completed a gruelling 10k obstacle course.
But you know what? Other stuff always seems to get in the way of even the best of successes. Unsuitable jobs sap you, friendships go nuclear, mould poisoning completely floors you. When I work with clients these types of challenges have to be factored in, and these days I am good at remembering to hold them in mind for myself too. Blaming and shaming gets us nowhere. The first rule is to survive. When we have the resources, we create the time, space and energy to do what helps us thrive.
No single diet does everything or even anything for everyone. Our individual nutrition strategies need to adapt and evolve as we ourselves do. But for me, after much self-experimentation I know which foods cause me full time anxiety and depression; insomnia and fatigue, constipation and bloating. Which foods make my senses scream, my joints seize, ache and crunch; my co-ordination leave the building, my ability to process information fade away, and my binge compulsions take over.
I also know which foods nourish me, my body and my brain. When I choose these over the foods that harm me, I get to enjoy the good things that being autistic offers me. Intense joy, strong connections with people and environments, blissful sensory experiences, unique understandings and intuition, the ability to lose myself for hours in an activity, a quirky sense of humour. While I don’t always have the energy or the motivation to plan, prep and prepare the food that flips that switch for me it’s good to have this self-knowledge and I appreciate the journey it took for me to learn it. Having this self-knowledge gives me autonomy, having the support to put it into practice gives me health and happiness.