An autistic adult’s perspective on diet, exercise, work and coming out as autistic

The interviewee for this article was Marineth Morataya a non-native English speaker, who suggested an interview about everyday life focusing on exercise, diet, work and as she put it “coming out as autistic.” Thank you Marineth for your suggestions and for taking the time to share your perspectives on these topics. The more we discuss different topics, the more we learn and the more that different voices are heard.

I would like to note that when discussing diet in this article I am not referring to eating less or suggesting that people should definitely eat a certain way. I would like to look at what Marineth’s perspectives and experiences are of eating and exercise habits as well as relevant research on these topics. This information may or may not be helpful to others and there is no single diet/exercise routine that is best for everyone.

Do eating habits make a difference to well being?

I asked Marineth what aspect of diet she would like to discuss and this was her response:

I would like to discuss that, unlike other people, for me was the best choice for my health and happiness because I used to have a lack of energy and I was so unhappy about eating my mother’s food because I don’t like many flavours or condiments, and after I realized about that I read that autistic people usually eat simply. So I’m healthier and happier”.

I asked Marineth if she eats a specific diet and this was her response:

“Yes, I go to the nutritionist. My diet changes depending on my goals in callisthenics, the exercise that I do. It can change if I want more muscle, if I want to maintain my weight or if I want to tone up.”

I think that it is great that Marineth has found something that makes her feel healthier and happier. I think eating habits is another interesting topic to discuss as I have seen there is quite a bit of information revolving around autistic children and diet especially regarding “food aversions” (How to Help Your Autistic Child With Food Texture Issues, 2021) due to sensory sensitivities but once again not much research about autistic adults. 

This brings up another false misconception that exists relating to autism which is that some people think  “autistic children grow out of being autistic or grow out of certain traits” (How ‘Growing Out of Autism’ Works: Is It Gone Completely?, 2021) which is not true and I think we should be careful of people claiming this. So the question I raise here is: “Do those sensitivities to food continue into adulthood and do they have an impact on well-being?”

Sensory sensitivities and eating habits

As Marineth mentions that she was “so unhappy” about eating her mother’s food and this changed when she could eat what she wanted. This might be another area of exploration for autistic adults in terms of overall well being, are some adults eating foods that are having a negative effect on them? It is shocking how little research there is in this area. Most of the studies I came across were regarding children and being “picky eaters”. I do not agree with this. If you try to see it from an autistic adult’s perspective it might provide some insights as to why children and adults do not like to eat certain foods. 

Considering sensory sensitivities and how this plays a role in eating makes things a lot easier to understand. If someone is sensitive to certain sensory information such as, smell, texture, taste and even sight this will impact how the brain processes this input and eating that food may overstimulate the senses which may feel intolerable for the person and might result in them experiencing severe discomfort and in some cases pain. I do not call this “picky eating.” 

One study I did come across concerning adults and their eating habits illustrated that autistic adults did indicate that sensory sensitivities that affected their eating habits in childhood continued into adulthood. Some indicated that they had learned to adapt to these sensitivities and therefore did not impact their eating habits anymore. However, this study did not consider that people are different and have different types of sensitivities, which in turn may make it harder for them to adapt (Kinnaird et al., 2019).

I asked Marrineth what she thought of this study and her response was:

 “I do agree with that study! Since now that I’m an adult I have control over my diet and/or my eating decisions I developed routines relative to food as well; for example, my nutritionist put pancakes on my diet and now it is my routine to eat pancakes every Saturday morning.”

“ I’m fine if I just eat a mandarin for a snack, I just love my oatmeal if it has chocolate chips. Also, I have problems with certain vegetables because of the taste, texture and smell, just like the study says, but I make sure to talk about that with my nutritionist, so he changes the vegetables for me to keep having a good diet.”

I also came across some articles claiming that autistic people ”should” eat a certain way or that certain foods impact autism, I am not really sure what to think of these. Unless these ”experts” making these claims know every possible way each individual (who are very different from one other) experience different foods, how can they make such generalized claims?  I asked Marineth:

What do you think about people in the field that recommend that autistic people should eat a certain diet?

“I think they cannot know. My nutritionist doesn’t know I’m autistic and my diet is perfect. He does ask me what I want to eat more or less, which is my favourite food, etc. But I don’t feel like the diet has affected me neurologically.”

This further illustrates that people are different and will experience food and sensitivities to food differently.

Benefits of exercise

It is very hard to find studies about the relationship between diet/exercise and happiness in autistic adults. However, I came across one that researched a relationship between exercise and the decrease of depressive symptoms in young adults.

According to the authors,  “physical activity is critically important for health promotion and disease prevention and the promotion of positive mental health, including improvements in mood and self-esteem” (Spratt et al, 2019).

“Exercise strengthens the cardiovascular system, boosts the immune system, and fortifies bones, but also fosters neuroplasticity and activates genes that protect cells against damage and disease. Additionally, routine exercise can spark biological changes that strengthen and condition the brain, similar to the way muscles grow with use and wither with inactivity” (Spratt et al, 2019).

The results of the study found: 

“Participation in the PIT program (an exercise curriculum that includes strength and endurance training, nutrition education, and stress reduction techniques to promote healthy lifestyle choices) not only helped to promote healthy lifestyle choices but also resulted in significantly improved mood amongst the participants. The participants’ improved mood supports the direct relationship between physical activity and mood” (Spratt et al, 2019).

I asked Marineth about what aspects of exercise would she like to talk about,

Her response was:

“I would like to talk about how hard it was for me to start doing exercise because it changed my sleeping routine, and it caused me a lot of anxiety because of the people in there watching me, watching my body and me not knowing how to use a machine, how to learn to do everything and the struggle about my coordination; I tried weight lifting but I didn’t like it, too repetitive and I felt like it was so easy to get injured. So I tried callisthenics and it was easier, faster results, I have easy access to classes and I can do it at home.”

I asked Marineth what she thought about exercise:

“It’s Good! It helps to prevent injuries (I got them for NOT doing exercise, and that’s why I started doing it), it helps me to free energy and work stress. I feel and look stronger, so I’m not clumsy anymore and don’t easily slip, I breathe better, I have better coordination and balance. I’m not an easy target to do harm or jokes. I feel way more confident emotionally and physically (I always struggled with that, but not that much anymore, just when I’m on PMS, LOL).” Says Marineth.

I came across another study indicating that that physical activity has many benefits for autistic people, such as increasing well-being, helping with emotional regulation, improving walking gait and balance, and raising activity levels” (Hallett, 2019).

The author is a late-diagnosed autistic woman who worked as a fitness instructor before she completed her studies in psychology. She was awarded a PhD in psychology in 2015, looking at music in exercise, and works as a university researcher and tutor (Hallett, 2019).

I asked Marineth about her thoughts on this study:

“Precisely! I do agree with the article, it mentions some things that I replied to in the previous question. So, to complement, I would like to add that it matters a lot to find the exercise that works for you, where you can find yourself comfortable, where the “exercise culture” is fine for you because it also changes depending on the exercise or sport, people behave differently, they dress differently.”

“I can tell that, in the beginning, is as hard as anything else; for me in callisthenics was the breathing rhythm, the coordination and strength, but after a couple of months of practising I could make it. When I don’t exercise it affects my emotions and my body because my muscles get too tense. Also, it helps me to shut down my thoughts for 1 hour (the time I exercise)” was Marineth’s response.

The author discusses the need for increased research in this area and specifically into programs that work for autistic adults because everyone is different and there are many positive effects of exercise on health and well-being. So I guess what we can take from all of this is that finding a type of exercise that you feel comfortable doing and that works for you can have positive outcomes on your health and well-being.

Work and finding out about being autistic

I asked Marineth “what aspects of work would you like to share with me?”

“I have changed of work many times, like every year of my career. It was difficult to make friends, it was hard to learn new processes, but I think it was because I didn’t know the reason was that I was pushing myself since I didn’t know I am autistic, but now is easier, waaaaaay easier. I dare to say that I am even better! Everyone is surprised about how good I am at work, I made a lot of kind-of-friends (because they are “work friends”, not life friends haha). People feel a lot of confidence in talking to me, approaching to me, to trust in me but it’s because I’m better too :)” said Marineth.

This is a good example of a positive outcome of people knowing about someone being autistic in the workplace. In the previous two blog articles with Dana and Dan, their discussions about people knowing in the workplace differed as Dana was uncertain if it was a good thing to tell employers but mentioned that when she had they were most of the time very understanding and Dan has not yet told his colleagues as people treated him differently who knew about his ADHD.

“We are different not less” 


I asked Marineth what she wanted to share about as she phrased it “coming out as autistic” and she told me:

Being autistic is something I LOVE to talk about because it was a huge impact on my life (I got my pseudo diagnosis last year at my 27), I like to talk about it because I can teach people that we are just PEOPLE! We are nothing like the tv characters, not all of us are obsessed with boyfriends or girlfriends, not all of us are Einstein.”

Temple Grandin says: We are different, NOT LESS”, we are not monsters, we don’t vomit radioactive, our eyes don’t pop up or drop our arms haha plus, I realize that neurotypicals have a lot of interests in different topics but they don’t talk about it because of “society” or whatever, but since I’m free because of autism I talk about videogames, Mario Bros., Harry Potter and it turns out that everyone wants to talk about that with me. They think they are free and “normal” but it’s just a lie.”

People’s responses, positive and negative

I asked Marineth if she has told people in her life that she is autistic and if it made a difference in her life,  her response was:

“Yes, I have and I got positive and negative responses.”

“Negative: I got comments like: “I know you and you are not autistic”, “my gynaecologist told me you are not autistic” (whatever that means, LOL), my previous boss attacked me by asking me to do conferences, telling everyone that I was “weird”, he even called me once to tell me that and to compare me with Beth from Queen’s Gambit. But I learned that people are ignorant, they were not my friends, they were not good people.”

“Positive: people ask me more about it, so more people know what autism is told by an autistic person herself, nobody bothers me with my stimming, people let me have my toys, they (my current boss) are more careful with the environment (noises) around me or apologize immediately by a stupid comment said (like: “everything you watch is weird”). And I feel free to be myself, yes, it could be an excuse for some people, but I like to laugh about the things people don’t laugh at, I like to feel uncomfortable when I’m uncomfortable and feel good to think (because I don’t know if that’s true) that I help the autistic community.”

Here again, showing different experiences in the workplace after people learn about someone being autistic. It’s good to hear about the positive experiences as hopefully, this is a sign that humans are progressing towards a more accepting and understanding world. 

Don’t lose yourself, know yourself, find yourself

In light of the above I asked Marineth the following question:

Do you think if the world was more accepting and accommodating of autistic adults would it be easier for them to tell other people that they are autistic?”

“Yes, totally. For me is very uncomfortable those social events at work, for example, I would love to have the option of not celebrating anyone’s birthday, to not going to every single party, I wouldn’t need to have 2 pairs of noise-cancelling headphones because of people speaking too loud, etc”.

I’m not sure if that answers the question… what I mean to say is that this is like a circle: we don’t say we are autistic / have autism because there are a lot of prejudices, taboos, misconceptions about autism, but that is not gonna change if we talk about it. So, as always, it remains like a personal option”, says Marineth.

In closing, I asked Marineth if she would like to add anything and these were her closing statements:

“Don’t lose yourself, know yourself, find yourself. There are hard days, terrible days but there are also really great days. In my case, I always look for another option until I’m happy or fine at least. Try to be as healthy as you can, live your life even if there is no particular reason, it feels good to find your “tribe” (people with the same interests) and it feels great to find yourself as a fish of colours in a grey ocean.”

Thank you again Marineth for those beautiful words and for taking the time and effort to contribute to this article. I really appreciate it. I always ask the readers to please comment, share or participate and if you would like to do so anonymously please send me an email.

I hope you like this article and have taken something beneficial from it. I have, as Marineth says “we are just PEOPLE” and I can relate to the fact that even though I am not autistic and do not know what people go through, I know that if I eat a balance of food that I like and engage in exercise that works for me, it does have an overall positive effect on my own well being. 

References

Elemy. 2021. How ‘Growing Out of Autism’ Works: Is It Gone Completely?. [online] Available at: <https://www.elemy.com/studio/autism/can-you-grow-out-of-it&gt; [Accessed 19 November 2021].

Elemy. 2021. How to Help Your Autistic Child With Food Texture Issues. [online] Available at: <https://www.elemy.com/studio/autism-and-diet/food-texture-issues&gt; [Accessed 25 November 2021].

Hallett, R., 2019. Physical Activity for Autistic Adults: Recommendations for a Shift in Approach. Autism in Adulthood, 1(3), pp.173-181.

Kinnaird, E., Norton, C., Pimblett, C., Stewart, C. and Tchanturia, K., 2019. Eating as an autistic adult: An exploratory qualitative study. PLOS ONE, 14(8), p.e0221937.

Spratt, E., Mercer, M., Grimes, A. and Papa, C., 2019. Translating benefits of exercise on depression for youth with autism spectrum disorder and neurodevelopmental disorders. J Psychol Psychiatr. 2018; 2: 109., [online] 2(109). Available at: <https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6602550/>

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