When food has to “make sense”

autism recovery

One of the most common phrases I hear in my work with autistic individuals dealing with eating disorders is that “food needs to make sense.” If I could summarize my own history with anorexia as an autistic person it would most definitely be that phrase! (which in Dutch is “het moet kloppen”).

For us autistics, this perspective of food and eating obviously makes sense in our brain – but by definition, something “making sense” is a subjective experience. Therefore, it can be difficult and perhaps even impossible for outsiders without lived experience to comprehend what goes on in the mind of an autistic person who has this perception of food needing to make sense.

In this post, I will break down what is often meant by the phrase “food needs to make sense” in an effort to provide an objective perspective that can be accommodated with compassion.

First off, it can be helpful to define the phrase “make sense.” According to the Cambridge English Dictionary, “make sense” is an idiom that means “to be clear and easy to understand.” But this definition begs the question: what does it even mean for something to be clear and easy to understand?

Well going back to the dictionary, the definition of "understand" is “to know the meaning of something.” So, for something to “make sense,” we must be able to attach knowledge to whatever it is we’re referring to.

For example, say you’re learning how to read. You’ve never tried reading before so you also have no clue of what letters look like or that they accompany sounds or that they can even form something called words when placed in a certain order. Now, imagine someone placed a book in front of your face and said, “Read this!” You’d ask, “What?” and they’d repeat, “Read this. Just read the words in front of you right now.”

Well, as you can imagine, because you have no knowledge of how to read, you’ll likely think “Well, none of this makes sense.” I mean, that’s pretty much what anyone would say if they were reading gibberish! Yet it’s not that the gibberish doesn’t make sense, it’s that our brains can’t make sense out of something we don’t have knowledge of.

How does this apply to food?

Most non-autistic people do this thing called “intuitive eating.” They can sense when they’re hungry and can sense when they’re full. Because they possess the knowledge that this uncomfortable feeling of hunger can be resolved by eating a certain amount of a certain combination of foods, it “makes sense” for them to turn this knowledge into a sequence of actions. For example, getting up, opening the fridge, grabbing some leftover pasta and eating it.

As they’re eating, there’s this deep instinctual part of their body that tells their brain they don’t really want what they’re eating anymore. In other words, they’re satisfied. Again, their brain links this signal to the knowledge that being satisfied equates to stopping consumption.

Simple enough, right?

Well, autistic brains and bodies work a bit differently. First of all, autistic people tend to struggle with a sense called interoception. Along with the well-known five senses – taste, touch, sight, smell, and hearing – there are three more, lesser known senses: proprioception, vestibular, and interoception. Interoception is responsible for communicating how we feel on the inside. So whether you’re hungry, thirsty, too hot, too cold, need to pee – that’s all controlled by your interoceptive awareness.

If you lack interoceptive awareness – which many autistic people do – you are literally not able to make sense of what is going on inside your body. In other words, you do not possess the knowledge of what you need to do to regulate yourself.

Because you can’t seem to find the answer inside, you look for it on the outside. You look at what other people are eating. You adhere to serving sizes. You watch “What I Eat in a Day” videos and calculate your “recommended daily calories” on some website that’s most likely recommending you to starve. Suffice to say, part of the reason autistic people have rules around food is because they’re trying to externally make sense of something they’re struggling to make sense of internally.

I remember so many times where I would get caught up in doing strenuous mental gymnastics, calculating all the different options that would allow a certain meal to “make sense.” If I was eating slices of bread, I would weigh them to ensure their actual weight was the same as on the package and if it was higher, I would cut corners off the bread because only then did the bread “make sense.” In other words, my knowledge of what the bread was supposed to be was fully dependent on something I could see – the nutrition label – that for the bread to make sense, my reality had to align with that knowledge.

This idea of food needing to “make sense” obviously surpasses this serving size example and extends into the times at which you can eat, what types of foods you can eat, the way the food has to look on the plate…I could go on!

While this difficulty and mental approach to food and eating likely causes any “normal” person to get a headache, this is where autistic people are inherently very adaptive. Because we do have this trait of things needing to make sense, we structure our life in such a way that things start to make sense by default AKA we no longer have to actively make sense of things.

By eating the same thing every day, at the same time every day, in the same way every day, we are simply executing knowledge we already possess. Going back to our definition of “make sense” and how it directly ties to knowing something, repeating the same actions day in and day out saves us from the mental effort that accompanies the acquiring of new knowledge. Rules, calorie numbers, the way something looks – these are all ways of making knowledge tangible, which obviously cannot be achieved inside the body.

So what next? How do you free yourself from the self-imposed rules and restrictions? Where do you start when it comes to living a life of abundance and one in which you’re embracing your autistic preferences without being confined to the cage of an eating disorder? You create new knowledge. Which of course, is terrifying…but if you’ve made it this far, you’ve already acquired a heck of a lot of knowledge!

Obtaining even more knowledge means entering a space that is safe enough for you to take new actions. Taking these new actions will initially not make sense. But remember, that’s ONLY because your brain doesn’t yet possess the knowledge attached to these new actions. If you want to learn from someone who’s learned how to create a new sense of self and free yourself from an eating disorder as an autistic person, schedule a consultation call for 1-1 coaching here!

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