When we think of the past dreadful year, what is the one activity that defined our lives? Well, aside from the home schooling and working, it was the time that we all began to cook. Most of our relationships are cultivated around the dinner table - be it a date, a special occasion or a family meal. Food - and the preparation of - has always been a huge part of our lives, and spending more time in the kitchen has been one way to restore some sense of the ‘normality’ we crave.
For Autistic people, however, this is not always something that is easy to pull off. We see a multitude of cookery books released every year, from Jamie Oliver to Nigella Lawson to Jack Monroe. However, whatever the niche these books target – vegans, parents, those trying to lose weight, those on a budget – there’s one that remains uncatered for. We who are Autistic.
I love food - the soft squidge of a piece of chocolate cake, the pounding of the dough to make it rise. But cooking for me was never really fun. Trying to replicate recipes never quite worked for me; it was like they were written in another tongue. So much time was spent just trying to understand what the cumbersome language meant, such as how to ‘time it’ so different elements arrive ‘done’ at the same time. (Executive functioning makes task sequencing difficult, so it takes twice as long.) To me, this made no sense. Audrey Hepburn’s story enchanted me as a teenager and her cookbook, Audrey At Home, is beautiful. But what was on the page never made it into my kitchen as anything other than a mess, or inedibile.
There are many challenges for Autistic folk when it comes to cooking and baking. Task sequencing is something I have always found difficult, for example; how do you time x and y ingredient to be cooked at the same time? How do you know what ingredients to have ready? What about the measuring? And how can you even recognise if you are hungry when your interoceptive system is impaired? Language is a big issue, too. What exactly is a ‘light heat’? What is a ‘cup’ - a literal ‘cup’ or the American measurement? Then there is the ‘sensory’ aspect - how do you cope when the world is so often too much? Whether you are a sensory seeker or an avoider, this stuff that is a daily occurence for me is just not taken into account.
There are hardly any accessible cookbooks and while you cannot cater to everyone, some adaptations for Autism would be wonderful to see. After all, Autism Awareness Day is rapidly approaching - and we are still having the same conversations about just why representation matters. It is time for the publishing industry to do better.
Search online for a book that is about cooking for an Autistic person and many strange results pop up. Autism is not a disease or an illness - there is no cure. Yet many so-called cookbooks around the topic of Autism are built round false science - that food controls 'our symptoms', and can ‘cure’ our Autism. This is dangerous, as well as beyond insulting. This also relies on the stereotype that Disabled people should forever stay at home, without any prospect of independence - when everyone should be given the chance, if they are able. ‘Helplessness’ is a trope we have seen so much in 2020; surely we've had enough?
Eating disorders are often seen in connection with Autism - with some research suggesting it has a higher prevalence in Autistic women. Many popular cookbooks promote losing weight, such as the recent Pinch Of Nom bestsellers. While this is appropriate for some, it is not always the best option for some of those on the Autistic spectrum.
Everyone deserves the chance at independence - but to get there, you need the right tools, accessible information - all in a ‘language' you can understand. Isn’t that part of publishing’s job? My own book, The Autism Friendly Cookbook (due to be published next year) is the stepping stone I hope for us to begin to unpick the stereotype of being ‘helpless’. It will aim to make the kitchen more accessible – such as what implements to use to when adapting to sensory issues. It will be written in accessible language, with recipes from Autistic folk. This has the potential for a whole new genre - accessible recipes! - where cooking talent of underrepresented groups is given the chance to shine. As we move into a ‘new normal’, we need to ensure that the ‘normal’ we work towards is more inclusive for those of us who simply aren’t well enough served.
Lydia Wilkins is a freelance journalist and newsletter editor. She is the author of the forthcoming The Autism Friendly Cookbook.