Is it ice cream, or mashed potato?
Recently, there appears to have been a trend on food television programmes involving dishes which appear to be something which they are not; last week's Show Stopper Challenge on Great British Bake Off, and last night's Masterchef Australia Invention Test, being just two examples. Whilst these illusions aren't a bad thing in of themselves, in the wrong context they can be harmful for autistic children and adults alike. One of my earliest memories of primary school dinners was a scoop of ice cream placed onto other children's plates at lunch-time. The problem arose when the dinner ladies then proceeded to ladle gravy upon it, which caused me no end of confusion, until someone pointed out to me that it was mashed potato...
You might dismiss this as a young boy's misconception, and you'd be right to, except for the fact that for autistic people, if it looks like ice cream, then it should be ice cream! The reason for this is quite simple: life on the autism spectrum is quite chaotic at the best of times, especially if, like me, you have sensory issues where processing the world around you is like putting together a constantly evolving, multi-dimensional, incoherent jigsaw puzzle. Consequently, if I'm used to seeing things done in a certain way (my mum never used an ice cream scoop to serve mash potato), then I'd like to think that is how it's always done (which in this case, it wasn't) because the alternative is too exhausting to contemplate (especially when I'm hungry, which is often).
Yesterday, I was invited to Billingshurst Community Centre to deliver training to staff catering for autistic children in schools. They were really friendly and keen to hear my perspective, but what was especially positive for me is that I managed to convey my ideas in a way that explained the behaviour of the autistic children they serve. I'd like to think that the session allowed them to realise that some of the things they take for granted, e.g. being able to make a choice when ordering food, is not necessarily easy/possible for children on the spectrum (especially if it looks different to what they are used to). I hope that when they next serve lunch to autistic children that they will be a little more mindful of what to expect, and that they will be able to appreciate that, for the most part, they're not being picky, they're just confused and/or overwhelmed.