Autism: Eating with Others and Learning Good Table Manners

Sitting with family or friends and eating a good meal together should be one of the greatest pleasures of everyday life.  But this is not always the case if your autistic/Aspergers.  Even the basic act of eating a meal, can have its difficulties for us.  Especially in areas such as eating socially, and using good table manners.

Why I Preferred Solitary Meals

Many autistic people prefer to eat alone.  I fell into this category for most of my life.  I never felt comfortable, or happy eating with anyone other than my closest family.  This meant, for the majority of my life, I have eaten lunch alone.

Whenever I tried to eat lunch with friends (or food at family parties) I was incredibly anxious.  I have always been aware my eating habits are not the best.  So whenever I ate communally I was hyper aware, and was conscious of every mouthful of food I took.  Which fed into my anxiety even more.  Once I finished this stressful experience, it often led to the awkwardness of having conversations with people I hardly knew.  All of which meant, a time of rest became the most arduous part of my day.

As an easy solution, for dealing with the problems of eating with people, was to spend my lunch unaccompanied.  With a few exceptions, I did this through secondary school, college, university and most of my previous jobs.  When I was younger I walked down quiet paths, such as the side of canals, or went to local parks.  It became easier when I had a car, as I could drive to a quite spot, eat my lunch, and have a few minutes to unwind alone before driving back to work.

People would often question where I went each day to eat lunch.  I would use an excuse such as: I preferred to buy food from a local shop, or I needed to unwind after a difficult morning.

Benefits of Eating with Friends

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.  If you can eat with your friends it makes you feel much more part of the group.  It will certainly increase your happiness, confidence, self-esteem and sense of belonging.  Even if you’re similar to me, and not the best at communicating, it gives you an opportunity to improve these skills.  You will also learn more about your workplace/school and the people in it, through gossip and general conversations others have in your group.

Example of Poor Eating Habits

There are a range of poor eating habits shown below.  I truly believe that having autism intensifies many of these difficulties, even when we try out best to eat in a way that is acceptable to others.

  • Eating with mouth open
  • Eating too loudly
  • Eating too quickly; or the opposite too slowly
  • Slurping drinks (and foods such as soup)
  • Slouching when sitting down
  • Refusing to eat certain food due to the taste, smell or texture (especially when younger)
  • Not liking spicy food, or the opposite not liking bland food
  • Eating alone, in places such as the bedroom
  • Making a mess when eating (food going onto the table, floor and clothing)
  • Wiping off food with a sleeve instead of a napkin
  • Not engaging in conversations
  • Talking whilst eating
  • Snacking too often, so not wanting to eat a large meal
  • Playing with 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
  • Being anxious or unwilling to try new foods

Improving Our Eating Habits

Like many things, when it comes to being autistic, there are two 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.  I usually opt for trying my best to fit in with others.

I improved my own eating habits by concentrating on one or two things at a time, and improving them.  My biggest problems were eating with my mouth open and eating loudly.  I made a conscious effort to try and close my mouth when eating, all of the time (even when alone) and eating a bit quieter.

It’s incredibly hard to change your eating habits to start with.  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’m tired and hungry and will just let things slip a bit, but not too often.

Noisy eating can be remedied by taking smaller mouthfuls of food and eating the right types of food.  For example, I never eat crisps in a social setting but have nuts instead.  This is because they are much easier and quieter for me to eat.

Eating quickly can be improved by gradually learning to enjoy and taste food.   You can also take smaller mouthfuls, and chew for a bit longer. I believe we eat quickly as we feel anxious, and want the awkward experience to end.  So by learning to enjoy the experience, it helps to calm us down and relax.  Therefore slowing our eating speed down.

Slouching can be corrected by realising it’s a problem, then consciously trying to correct it, at every opportunity.  I slouched well into my thirties.  It took months of practise to put it right.  Whenever I sit down, at home or work, I try my best to sit up straight.  Especially at meal times, when I sit on a hard chair.  It has many benefits such as feeling more comfortable, you not looking out of place and being able to eat better (so less chance of spilling food).

When eating socially, you usually get a choice of food.  In the past I chose whatever I fancied.  Now, I carefully select my food.  I will choose an option I still enjoy, but it has to be easy to eat when people are watching.  As an example: I would never eat a burger with work friends.  As they can be extremely large, messy and difficult to eat in small mouthfuls.  So I will choose a safe meal, that can be eaten in small easy mouthfuls.  Something like chilli and rice, curry and rice or a chicken salad.

I don’t attend social events very often.  When I do they tend to be in the evening.  The usual food is a buffet.  Eating copious amounts of this nice food used to be one of the few highlights of a party.  Now I only have a small plate of food.  Instead of relying on this food for my main evening meal, I will have a smaller meal before leaving home.  This means I am in control of my hunger.  When I wasn’t in control, I would eat large amounts of food at a quick pace.  With this simple strategy I can eat in smaller quantities at a slower pace.

Having lunch regularly with your work colleagues or friends requires a real commitment and effort.  If you’re anything like me, you probably feel more comfortable eating alone.  If you want to eat regularly with friends, it is good to do it gradually.  Not committing yourself to too much failure, if things don’t go to plan.

I began eating with friends by setting myself a challenge.  I decided I would try my best to eat with my friends for just one day.  The rest of the week I could do my normal thing and eat alone.  It took a few weeks to find the right moment, and then I did it.  It was very uncomfortable at first, but I succeeded.  A few weeks later I tried it again, and it was a little bit easier.  I eventually ate lunch with my friends regularly.  Then all of the time.

Eating with others has definitely improved my life.  I’ve got to the stage, after lots of practise, where I’m mostly comfortable when eating with friends and family.  The contrast has been life changing for me.  That being said, I am occasionally anxious when eating socially, but that is fine and normal.  At least it’s not all the time.

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