The process of writing this blog is making me see all the ways I’ve been not been seeing things, hearing them, tasting them. Only the ‘peak experiences’ had come to my attention.
If you had asked me, outside of the experience of pregnancy, I would have said that the olfactory channel had a small impact on me.
When I got pregnant with our first child, OMG it was horrific.
We had a gorgeous leather sofa and armchairs, so soft and squishy. I loved them. Until I didn’t.
I came home from work, already feeling a little pregnancy-queezy and there was this awful smell. At first I went in search of any dead birds or animals that one of the cats might have brought in and left in a sunny patch. Nothing. I paced the house trying to work out what it was. My husband came home. “Can you not smell it?” I demanded. He couldn’t. Long story short – it was the sofa, the leather. I would react physically, like a dog shaking its head and pawing at its muzzle to get rid of the smell.
“Can you not smell it?” is a frequent refrain of mine. It’s not enough to trigger a meltdown but it can have an accumulative effect if the other senses are overloaded. I have to walk out of a room if someone is wearing strong perfume or aftershave. My son and husband are banned from using spray deodorants anywhere where I might walk into a cloud of the stuff. In fact hubby now uses a roll-on instead. The current annoyance is our new carpets. I can smell them. I could smell the old ones, too, but I had labelled the smell an accumulation of ten years of dog-cats-teenageboys and was looking forward to a new odour-free home. The feckin’ smell is still here. It’s part of the carpets.
A related sense is taste. I’m a bit of a supertaster. I cannot bear bitter flavours. I’ve spent a couple of years trying to get used to tonic water in a G&T. I’ve finally given up experimenting with different types, flavours and garnishes. Why drink something so unpleasant in the name of being a grown up?
I hate bitter salad leaves. Give me the peppery ones any day – so it’s not about intensity of flavour. It’s about an aspect of flavour.
It isn’t just a dislike. I’m finding this one hard to describe. Thinking about it, it’s the same as the smell reaction, trying to physically shake out the taste.
A couple of days ago my neighbour gave me an exotic fruit (she’s from Hong Kong). I think it was a mango but it had an unusual shape and colour compared to the supermarket ones. I left it a while because often the things she gives us have unexpected qualities; different textures or flavours, like the apple-pears – they looked like apples but had the texture of pears. Many autistic people don’t like the unexpected in our food.
Eventually I decided to have the mango for my lunch. The flavour was very intense and had an edge to it. It reminded me that this ‘edge’ was a common experience from childhood. It opened up a door on memories. The edge is sharp and unpleasant; mango, broccoli, avocado, bitter leaves, marmalade, broth. It’s metallic.
In the same way I can only eat using certain cutlery. Our older knives and forks have the same effect as tinfoil on a tooth filling; it’s electric, metallic, painful. I’d noticed it for a while but never thought to decide to only eat using the cutlery that isn’t unpleasant. An aspect of masking – just putting up with something and getting on with it?
I wondered whether supermarket mangos have been bred to be sweeter these days and without that metallic edge? Or has my masking included flattening down not just emotional responses but also sensory responses. Does my perspex layer include everything in its controlling downward pressure? This masking, this layer, is helpful in navigating a world that can’t accept an adult having an expressive response to a taste or smell they don’t like. But how much have I missed in the opposite direction? Those wonderful flavours and smells blocked out?
This next section I wasn’t sure whether to include under taste or under a future post on rituals, rules, and routines; food separation. I don’t mind the different foods on my plate touching or even one covering another (unlike one of my sons who really doesn’t like foods on top of each other). I do however prefer to eat each thing on my plate separately. I like to taste my chicken or my broccoli (yes, I eat it now but only the young, less strong-tasting varieties) or my potatoes. If you mix them all up you can’t really taste anything. The exception is things that are supposed to be mixed up, like stew or spaghetti bolognaise that have their own mixed-up flavour. I might also mix up a couple of things if one of those foods is something I ‘ought’ to eat but I don’t really like the taste or texture of – mayonnaise to disguise the texture of a hard-boiled egg for example.
Which brings me to texture. I can’t eat slimy, slippery or rubbery things. Instant gag-reflex. My dad, when I was a child, insisted that the only way to eat boiled eggs was soft-boiled. Bleuch! I can only eat them hard-boiled or fried on both sides if we’re talking fried eggs. And again I often have to disguise the texture; a full English breakfast where the crispy bacon or well-done sausage hides the rubberiness of egg whites. I definitely have to be in the mood for eggs. I can’t bear fat on anything other than really crispy bacon. Lightly cooked fish or overcooked fish; yuk. It’s a minefield.
I saw an angry tweet the other day from someone ranting about an adult only being able to eat chicken nuggets and french fries. You have to wonder what is going on in someone’s head that they can get so angry about another person’s food choices. What does it matter? It doesn’t affect your food choices. It’s not like you’re being forced to eat chicken nuggets. Get over it.
We don’t choose to have these sensitivities.
If you are or think you are autistic, you have a right to your own likes and dislikes. It’s time to pay attention to your own responses and choose those things that give you joy. Enjoy!