Friday, 10 May 2013

I can't eat that! Aspergers, sensory sensitivity and food

Sensory disregulation can take any form: some people struggle with light or sound.  For some it's smells, or heat, or cold. The tactile sense of clothing or water on skin does for others.  Some can't stand light touch, others can only bear the lightest of touches.  Most Aspies have some sort combination of multiple sensory triggers.

When I was musing about my weight last week, I mentioned that I have trouble with sensory sensitivity in relation to food.  It's become less severe as I've got older, but there are some foods I just can't handle at all.  Sadly it tends to be the healthiest foods - raw fruit and vegetables - that cause the most trouble, while artery-clogging deep fried carbohydrates generally go down OK.

Every person with sensory issues will have their own unique triggers, but these are mine:

Bitterness: A lot of fresh fruit, things like berries and stonefruit in particular, taste really bitter to me.  Even when other people are commenting on how sweet this season's apricots are, I'll be screwing my face up like I've just had a vinegar mouthwash and surreptitiously looking for somewhere to spit.  I wonder if I'm more sensitive to whatever compound in fruit gives it a bitter taste?  I think it may actually be a self-preservation thing on my body's part, because if I do manage to get down a normal-sized serving of the sort of fruit that triggers that reaction - in a smoothie with honey or sugar, for instance - it plays havoc with my digestion on the way through.

Whatever it is that causes this is destroyed by cooking, because I can eat cooked fruit quite comfortably and without stomachular upheaval.  It works if it's just been poached in water, without sugar or anything else to change the taste, so it seems to be the heat itself that cures the problem.

Slimy texture and off smell: Fruit chunks in yoghurt is the classic culprit here.  Fruit or veg that's been preserved in liquid sometimes takes on a slimy texture and a smell that's really, really offputting.  It doesn't affect everything - beetroot pickled in vinegar is perfectly palatable, and dried tomato in oil - but the things that are affected genuinely do taste like they're rotten.  There's no "oh, this tastes bad, I'll spit it out" thought process at work; it's a genuine, instinctive gag reflex, the same as if you had put something genuinely decomposing in your mouth.

A blender is a great help with this one.  Fruit yoghurt can be blended smooth, and the offending taste and texture disappears once the fruit is no longer in lumps.  The resulting yoghurt does tend to be rather thin though, so it appears I accidentally invented drinking yoghurt.  Similarly I accidentally invented tapenade by blending up a bottle of olives and other antipasto things in oil which wasn't quite right.  It was quite nice blended to a rough paste and spread on toast.

Fibrous stuff: The only thing I can think of off the top of my head for this category is citrus fruit, but I'm sure there are more.  I actually quite like oranges and mandarins, but I find their texture really hard to swallow.   It's got this weird thing going on where no matter how thoroughly I chew it, it feels like it's not sufficiently processed to go down.  Like the off-tasting pickled stuff, it's not a conscious "I don't like this", but an instinctive reaction.  My body's apparently decided that the orange fibre's going to choke me if I swallow it, so it just refuses.  Fortunately orange juice doesn't cause problems, even if it has pulp.

Fresh tomato: gets its own heading because I just don't know what its problem is.  Tomato sauce? Fine. Paste? Fine. Soup? Fine. Dried in olive oil? Fine.  But fresh, in slices on a hamburger or kebab?  No way on Gods' green earth.  It somehow manages to trigger the bitterness, slimy texture AND fibre issues, all while looking completely innocent and inoffensive.  I can only assume tomatoes have it out for me unless they've been boiled, mashed, dried, blended or otherwise pulverised into submission.

Image: Homesteader feeding his daughter, from the US Library of Congress collection on Flickr Commons