Eating behaviors

What do we mean by eating behavior?
SIMPLE EXPLANATION

Eating behavior is the way in which a person deals with food and the habits they have in relation to food. Like everyone else, autistic people have a variety of eating behaviors. However, certain eating behaviors are much more common in autistic people.

Defining eating behavior

A person’s interaction with their food, and the eating habits they have, are eating behaviors. Everyone has eating habits. Some are healthy and balanced, others are problematic, but there is no universal recipe for “good” or “bad” eating behaviors. Depending on needs, preferences, environment and culture, they can vary greatly from one person to another.

Warning

The particularities of autistic people may make their eating behaviors different from the average person, but that doesn't mean they are wrong. If there is no risk to an individual's health, atypical behaviors do not need to be eliminated.

Behaviors related to sensory particularities

Most autistic people have sensory peculiarities. In other words, their brains perceive certain senses differently. Eating is an action that activates several senses: smell, taste, touch, sight, as well as thermoception (perception of temperature) and proprioception (perception of the body). These senses enable us to understand what we’re eating and to determine whether the food we’re eating is edible.

In autistic people, some of these senses may be more sensitive than average, or better at perceiving details. This sensitivity can give the person the impression that they are eating food that is not edible. They will then feel disgusted, nauseous, or like they want to vomit. To avoid this condition, the autistic person may adopt one or more of these behaviors:

Eating habits linked to routines and rituals

Autistic people generally prefer to follow the same routine over and over again. When planning their actions, autistic people tend to chop up their daily task into small pieces. As a result, autistic people will do each daily action in exactly the same way. This phenomenon is sometimes called ritual, because it resembles the way people in general repeat important ceremonies in exactly the same way (e.g. the words said by the officiant at a wedding are always exactly the same). Autistic people might have a fixed routine for mealtimes, but they also eat their meals in exactly the same way.

An autistic person may adopt one or more behaviors similar to:

Eating habits linked to motor difficulties

Many autistic people have motor difficulties. Some autistic people will have difficulty with fine motor skills, i.e. small movements (e.g. writing, brushing teeth, fastening a button). Some autistic people have difficulty with gross motor skills, i.e. large movements (e.g. catching a ball, riding a bicycle, packing groceries). These difficulties affect eating behavior. Fine motor skills are important for chewing and swallowing food, as well as for certain food preparation tasks (e.g. cutting food). Gross motor skills are important for food preparation (e.g. stirring soup in a pot, draining water from pasta). Many autistic people will develop tricks to make the task easier for themselves. An autistic person may adopt one or more of the following behaviors:

More rarely, some autistic people find it easier to eat foods containing different textures. Different textures help them understand where to bite and how to move the food around in the mouth: chunks go under the top teeth. Changing textures help them know when to swallow: when there are no more chunks, the task of chewing is over, and they can swallow without choking. These people may adopt one or more of the following behaviours:

Eating behavior linked to social interaction

Eating is already a sensory-rich activity that requires a great deal of concentration for many autistic people. On top of that, humans tend to eat in groups and socialize at the same time as eating. For many autistic people, this means doing two activities that require a lot of concentration at the same time. Some autistic people forget to eat during group meals. Others will only eat, not socialize. And some won’t eat enough and won’t socialize either. There are a few things you can do to make mealtime easier.

When I eat in a group, I digest badly. I usually prefer to eat alone, with headphones on, and it's hard to be interrupted, which makes it difficult to perceive my satiety reflex. When I eat, I need concentration and calm.

A relative or caregiver can:

An autistic adult can:

(Example of separating moments: Finish listening to Benoit’s anecdote, then eat his coleslaw, then listen to Caroline’s anecdote, then eat her fries, etc.).

I worked as a political attaché at the National Assembly. I had to take part in several 5 to 7s to meet people. I kept forgetting to eat, since the task was to meet people, not to eat. One day, I ran out of energy at a 5 à 7 and passed out in the bathroom. I tried to hide it from the MP. I hadn't even been hired for three months. I wanted to perform well. But of course, it showed! I no longer had the coordination I needed to eat. She saw me, looked at my untouched plate, looked at me and said, "You're too nervous to eat! She helped me as discreetly as possible to cut my chicken into bite-sized pieces, and gently and directly assigned me the task of eating enough to stop feeling sick. Despite my efforts, I haven't gotten better over time; I still forget to eat. My colleagues have developed tricks to help me eat at work. Just because you have a career doesn't mean you don't need support.

Eating as self-stimulation (stim)

Some autistic people will engage in self-stimulatory behaviors to soothe themselves that are related to eating. Some autistic people like to chew on objects. Children may tend to eat the objects they chew. This is called pica. Some autistic people don’t feel full even after eating. These people tend not to stop eating foods they like until there are none left.

When I was a kid, I used to eat wood to soothe myself. At first, the intention was just to lick it so that it would become moist and then I could crush it to get the liquid out, but I ended up taking small bites. Scrabble game pieces and coloring pencils were not spared.

Catherine Bouchard-Tremblay

Science popularizer