Autism: Eating with Others and Learning Good Table Manners

For autistic/Asperger’s people, like myself, there are many issues around social eating and using the correct manners.  Some of these issues we know about from a young age, but it can take many years to realise the less obvious ones.  I will go over the issues I have faced in the past and others that I have researched, but if I leave any out please let me know.

Bad Eating Habits (or are perceived to be bad by others)

Many of us who are autistic/Asperger’s, do not like eating in front of other people.  I am one of these people.  I ate lunch alone for many, many years at school, college, most of uni and work.  I’ve only started to eat with work friends in the past couple of years.  A lot of this was related to anxiety and being conscious that I do not eat as well as others.  I did not (and still don’t) have perfect table manners or eating etiquette so I just preferred to eat alone.

Eating alone meant I could eat how I wanted without offending others, or feeling nervous.  Although it did have downsides, as I would often feel awkward when people questioned where I went at lunchtime.  My usual response was that I went to the park to get some fresh air and some peace and quiet. I have the good fortune to work with many autistic people.  Many of them, choose to eat alone or not eat lunch at all (having a large breakfast and evening dinner instead).

Some of the issues I had (or still have a bit) when eating with others include:

  • Eating with my mouth open
  • Eating too loudly
  • Eating too quickly
  • Slurping drinks (and foods such as soup)
  • Slouching over with an arched back, when sitting down
  • Refusing to eat certain food due to the taste or texture (especially when younger)
  • Eating alone in my bedroom
  • When I eventually ate downstairs I did not sit at a table until in my 30’s
  • Making a mess when eating (food going onto the table and occasionally down my t-shirt)
  • Not talking to anyone or answering their questions (I was not much of a talker anyway but I would talk even less when eating)
  • Talking whilst eating (on the few occasions I did try to answer people’s questions)

Other issues can include:

  • Snacking too often, so not wanting to eat a large meal or playing with food
  • Taking too long to eat
  • Not liking the smell of certain foods
  • Not liking certain textures such as too crunchy (like crisps) or too soft (like bread)
  • Not liking strong food or the opposite not like bland food
  • Having arguments or meltdowns at meal times (due to not enjoying or hating the experience)
  • Not being able, or wanting, to follow rules set by elders
  • Wiping food off your mouth with your sleeve instead of a napkin
  • Being anxious or unwilling to try new foods

Why Should we Correct our Bad Eating Habits?

Like many things when it comes to being autistic there are too sides of thinking. One is where people should accept us for being different, so we do not change.  The other is trying to fit in with the rest of society to help us to become more accepted.  No way is right or wrong, but I try to fit in with people who are not autistic as much as I can, most (but not all) of the time.

Eating with others is a massive bonding experience which strengthens your group and friendship.  This is especially true when done regularly such as at work and school.  It probably takes roots in primitive times when food was shared and eaten amongst people who spent most of their lives hunting together, at events such as feasts.  If you can eat with your friends It makes you feel much more part of the group and will certainly increase your happiness, confidence, self-esteem and sense of belonging in the work place or school.

There will be times in life, no matter how much you try to avoid them, that you will end up eating in front of others.  Whether this is a family occasion such as Christmas, 40th Birthday party or wedding anniversary.  Or it might be your own wedding party, a funeral, part of a work interview or a compulsory part of work such as a Christmas meal in work time.  For me I want to make sure I eat quite well on these occasions, and there are things I have learnt over the years that can help.

Improving Your Eating Habits

I feel the best way to improve my own eating habits was to concentrate on one or two things at a time and improve them.  For example, one of my biggest problems was eating loudly and with my mouth open some of the time.  I made a conscious effort to try and close my mouth when eating all of the time (even when eating at home, whether with family or alone) and eat a bit quieter. it is incredibly hard to change something like that to start with, as eating has been learnt (correctly or incorrectly) from early childhood.  But it can be done with patience, will and practise.  I will admit that sometimes I am tired and hungry and will just let things slip a bit, by creeping into my old habits, but nearly all of the time I eat properly.

Noisy eating can be remedied by taking smaller mouthfuls of food (not tiny of course but just smaller) and eating the right kinds of foods.  For example, I never eat crisps in a social setting but have nuts instead because they are much easier for me to eat.  Eating quickly can be improved by gradually learning to enjoy and taste food, taking smaller mouthfuls and chewing for a bit longer. I believe eating quickly comes down to feeling anxious and wanting the awkward experience to end.  So learning to enjoy the experience should help to make the experience last longer.

Whenever I used to sit down, I would always slouch over and have an arched back or rest my arms on the table as support.  I have only just got used to sitting upright properly and I am in my late 30s.  It took a lot of practise but whenever I sit down, at home or work, I try my best to sit up straight.  This is especially true at meal times when I sit on a hard chair.  It has many benefits such as feeling more comfortable in the long run, not looking out of place to the rest of the group and being able to eat better (so less chance of spilling food down my top or trousers).

When eating socially you usually get a choice of what you can eat.  I used to choose whatever I fancied but now, other than when I eat with my wife and kids, I am careful in what I choose.  Rather than choose something that I really want to eat, I will choose something that is easier to eat in front of others and something I know I will enjoy.  For instance, I would also never eat a burger with work friends.  This is because some can be extremely large, messy and difficult to eat small mouthfuls.   I know I would struggle to eat them quietly, as well, due to the soft texture of the bread and the sauce all making a squelching noise.   So I would usually go for something very safe that can be eaten in small easy mouthfuls.  This could be something like chilli and rice, curry and rice (but obviously only if you can tolerate spicy food) or a chicken salad.  Something that is easy to nibble on, not too messy and where you can easily finish a mouthful and talk to someone if necessary.

The few social events I attend tend to be in the evening, where there is plenty of buffet food available (eating copious amounts of this nice food used to be one of the few highlights for me).  I used to make the mistake of not eating beforehand.  Believing that the people who put on the food would want me to enjoy it and eat as much as possible.  Although this is sometimes fine, like with close family and friends, most of the time it is better to avoid this strategy.  These days, if I am invited to an evening party with food, I will always have a light meal beforehand.  This means I am still in control of my hunger.  When I used to miss this lighter meal, the buffet would always open too late by which time I would be overly hungry.  Because of this I would go into a survival type mode where I eat extra, quickly and eagerly to stop that craving and my manners slipped out the window. If I have this lighter meal beforehand I only feel mildly hungry so I am in control.  I can eat the type of food that is suitable in front of others, in smaller quantities at a slower pace.

Eating with others as often as possible is a real commitment and effort.  If you are like me, you probably feel more comfortable eating alone.  But if you want to fit in you really need to learn to eat with your friends at lunch time. The way I did this was to set myself a small achievable challenge.  My challenge was as simple as: “one day this week I am going to stay in for lunch and eat with my friends”.  Then I did it.  It was very uncomfortable at first but I got through it.  I was conscious of every mouthful of food and was being overly cautious of eating correctly.  Then I did it again a few weeks later until eventually I did it quite regularly, and then all of the time.  If it works out, it definitely improves your life.  I’ve got to the stage (I don’t know how) that I am mostly okay with eating in front of people, as I have had that much practise and the experience is usually a positive one.  Which is quite a life changing thing for me as I used to dread and hate it.  It really is a case of practise makes perfect.

As with all of these eating issues I make an effort to change them all the time (so even when I am home alone) in order to make them more natural.  It is hard to change old habits but worthwhile.  If you can eat with others, it will improve your life in the long run and your friendships.  Like with many things there is a small risk involved (e.g. you might spill food down your top in front of your friends or your friends may find your eating habits unusual) but it is worth taking the chance.

 

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