The Wyrd Sisters

We are The Wyrd Sisters; three neurodivergent sisters navigating a neurotypical world.

  • 25 Things to Know About Autism and Christmas

    Autism Advent Calendar: 25 things to know about autism and Christmas

    Autism Advent Calendar: Things to Know About Autism and Christmas

    Christmas: love it or hate it, here in the UK, it’s at the forefront of life for a month (or more) each year. Everywhere you turn there are cards and carols, trinkets and tinsel, puddings and parcels and partridges in pear trees. For the whole of December, Christmas takes life as we know it and turns it upside down… and for an autistic person, this can be a huge adjustment.

    Autism is a lifelong developmental condition, characterised (among other things) by atypical social and communication skills, restrictive and repetitive interests, and sensory differences. Each of these facets can be impacted by Christmas at different times, in very different ways, varying widely from person to person. Our Autism Advent Calendar outlines 25 things to know about autism and Christmas:

    1. Autism and Fairy Lights

    Fairy lights (or Christmas lights) are a big part of the general merriment of Christmas; but they can provoke a more intense reaction in autistic people. Some of us become overwhelmed by bright lights, whilst others find them a source of intense joy. Autistic people who are visual sensory seekers can take huge pleasure in fairy lights, even more so than neurotypical people.

    2. Autism and Holiday Rituals

    Many people have rituals surrounding Christmas, but for autistic people, these can be hugely important. We find great comfort in structure and routine, and some of us have carried out the same specific Christmas rituals for years. 

    This can be harmless, but becomes problematic if we are inflexible and unable to accept even minor and/or necessary changes. For example, if we are used to spending Christmas day with a family member, and that family member moves house, that change might upend our entire Christmas experience.

    3. Autism and Christmas Jumpers

    We all have a Christmas jumper that gets pulled out from the back of the wardrobe in December. Love them or hate them, for autistic people, sensory issues can play a huge part in our feelings toward the Christmas jumper. Textures like wool can be especially aggravating to those who are hypersensitive to clothing; however, their baggy cut can be a dream come true for autistic people who prefer loose clothing. Even those who like compression from their clothes have the option to wear something underneath, so it’s a win-win in that regard. 

    Personally, I dread the month of Christmas jumpers, because it means re-working my entire wardrobe. Despite what you might believe, personal style can be hugely important to autistic people, and wearing something bright and ‘silly’ like a Christmas jumper can make us horribly self-conscious. Not to mention, branching out from our everyday clothing repertoire to wear something ‘different’ is rarely something we enjoy.

    4. Autism and the ‘Christmas Do’

    Whether it’s work, school or family, the month of December usually comes with a tidal wave of parties and social events. Contrary to popular belief, many autistic people enjoy parties; and having a full calendar can be an especially welcome sight to people who have both autism and ADHD, who might require more constant stimulation.

    However, a lot of us come to dread the onslaught of parties. The chaos and noise (bonus points if there are balloons) can be hell on the senses, and the pressure of socialising can overshadow any enjoyment we might otherwise get out of the experience. The ‘Work Do’ can be especially stressful, as it involves adjusting our demeanour, ‘letting loose’ and having fun with people around whom we might usually be quite formal. Even if we enjoy partying with others, the proximity of one party to another can deny us the crucial ‘down time’ which many of us need to recover and recharge our social batteries.

    5. Autism and Reacting to Presents

    To a neurotypical person, this might seem like a pedantic and insignificant issue. But for an autistic person, the social pressure to ‘react right’ to a present can be crippling. Many of us struggle with being the centre of attention, so having all eyes on us as we peel off wrapping paper is an uncomfortable experience; and when the present itself emerges, it all comes to a head. 

    We know we have to look pleased, even if we’re not. But from heavy maskers to those with flat affects and blank expressions, autistic people tend to have a complicated relationship with portraying our emotions. For many of us, what we look like on the outside doesn’t always reflect what we feel on the inside. We can obsess over whether we look happy enough with our gift, or not even realise that we seem ungrateful or upset. 
    On the other hand, some of the most joyful reactions you will ever see is that of the autistic person who has just received exactly the thing they have always wanted. Some of us can’t help but wear our hearts on our sleeves, which can be a wonderful sight to behold when things go right.

    6. Autism and Sugar and Alcohol

    Christmas is typically a time of excess; more spending, more parties, and more food and drink than any other month of the year. General food issues aside, one of the more surprising autistic traits is being highly susceptible to the effects of consumable substances- for example, sugar and alcohol- than neurotypical people. 

    Some of us use this to our advantage; one whiff of hard spirits and suddenly we’re the life of the office Christmas party. But when a little goes a long way, self-medicating social anxiety with alcohol can be a very dangerous thing. And for younger neurodivergents (and us adults who like chocolate more than we should), the Christmas day sugar indulgence inevitably leads to a sugar crash, which can exacerbate any burnout we may already be dealing with.

    7. Autism and Christmas Shopping

    There are two kinds of people; those who love Christmas shopping, and those who feel a chasm of dread open in their stomach at the very mention of Primark. Though not all autistic people dislike shopping, the very nature of the Christmas period adds layers to the experience which we are likely to find challenging. 

    Firstly, shopping in December can be a sensory hell. Moving from the freezing cold outdoors to the sweltering hot shop interior (and who actually takes their coats off to shop?), the crowds of people, the repetitive music, the piles of discarded clothing and pastel Secret Santa toiletries clogging up the aisles. If the scene described made you panic a little, then congratulations; you may be one of us. 

    Aside from this, the act of Christmas shopping can be hugely overwhelming for an autistic person. We often have difficulty with things like choice, so being presented with the same item in six different colours can be paralysingly stressful. We can struggle with queues, which tend to be miles long at this time of year, and these pressures combined with sensory overload can very quickly lead to a meltdown. And that is the last thing you want to happen in a packed shop.

    8. Autism and Burnout

    Most people will experience burnout at some point in their lives; but autistic burnout can not only be more frequent, but more debilitating. And Christmas just so happens to create the perfect conditions for it. 

    The weeks leading up to Christmas and the New Year can often bring a new social event every week, if not every day. Some autistic people are social butterflies, and thrive with a full calendar; but many of us struggle with the lack of down time needed to re-charge our social batteries. This is only exacerbated if you are a people-pleaser, which many high-masking autistic people tend to be. We might say yes to every single thing we’re invited to, even if we know full well it’s going to wear us down. 

    Burnout is not only caused by frequent socialising, but the nature of that socialising; for example, high-pressure situations where you have to be cheerful and react appropriately to presents, or having to converse politely with some distant aunt who has far more opinions about your life than she should. We can also experience burnout from pushing ourselves too hard; so the never ending to-do list of buying presents, wrapping presents, putting the tree up, watching the school concert and making gingerbread men can have a long-lasting effect on our wellbeing. 

    It’s easier said than done, I know. But this Christmas, try and slow down a bit.

    9. Autism and Christmas Dinner

    For many people, neurotypical or neurodivergent, the thought of Christmas dinner is enough to fill us with longing. But if there’s one thing that tends to unite autistic people, it is that we have big opinions about our food. 

    There’s no one-rule-fits-all when it comes to autism and food; however, some common preferences are making sure food doesn’t touch, having a specific order to eat things in, using particular utensils, and preferring a ‘beige diet’ (plain carbohydrates). This can sometimes be tricky with Christmas dinner, which involves a lot of different components, including liquids like gravy and cranberry sauce. Even if we like a certain food, we may only like it made by a particular person or to a particular recipe (when I was younger I only liked carrots when my Gran made them, and absolutely would not eat anyone else’s). This can quite easily cause the chef some offence, especially if we struggle to communicate our preferences tactfully. 

    Food aside, Christmas dinner is usually a highly social occasion, which can be stressful in itself. We have to concentrate on making polite small talk whilst also concentrating on eating (no I don’t care that I’m not holding my fork properly); and on top of that, many of us live with the co morbid condition misophonia, or hypersensitivity to certain sounds. So if you want to lash out with the carving knife when you hear someone chewing with their mouth open, you’re not the only one.

    10. Autism and Religion

    Whilst Christmas these days has drifted away from religion, it is still a factor that crops up here and there. Every autistic person will have a different attitude towards organised religion, but it can be common to flock to the extremes: to love it, or to hate it. 

    Some autistic people can struggle to understand the concept of an ideology which cannot be proven with factual evidence. We tend to think in black and white terms; things are either right or wrong, and if we can’t find the logic to prove it right, it therefore must be wrong. Though not always the case, we can also be less likely to find comfort in the elements of religion which are designed to be comforting (e.g. the afterlife). Our communication differences mean we can sometimes be a little blunt, which can be an issue when discussing emotive topics like religion. Essentially, we’re not always the most tactful of people. 

    On the other hand, some autistic people thrive within religious communities due to their emphasis on ritual and tradition. It can be easy to hide our idiosyncrasies in circles which are underpinned by rules; we don’t have to worry about how to act and what to say when we can default to such a massive mutual interest as religion. Some autistic people even develop a special interest in a specific religion or philosophy.

    11. Autism and Gift Giving

    ‘Christmas isn’t about presents’, proclaims Nan over her fifth glass of sherry. You nod politely; but you also know that Nan is full of sh*t, and that Christmas is absolutely about presents. And finding the right present for someone is hard

    We’ve already talked about the hellscape that is Christmas shopping; but even before we step onto the high street, autistic people can have difficulty coming up with gift ideas. We can put far too much pressure on ourselves to get the ‘right’ gift; or we can stray to the other extreme, and not regard it as a priority. Executive functioning issues mean that we can easily forget about buying presents, or leave it too late. On a much broader scale, disabled people earn on average £3,731 less annual pay than non-disabled people, meaning that we may have far less disposable income to spend on presents. 

    On the bright side, Christmas presents align perfectly with the autistic phenomenon of ‘pebbling’. Named after the act whereby penguins give pebbles to other penguins they like, many autistic people show affection by giving thoughtful, nuanced gifts to their loved ones, and derive great satisfaction and happiness from doing so.

    12. Autism and Loneliness

    Christmas is a time when friends and family get together to enjoy each other’s company; and this can be incredibly difficult for those who have little in the way of either. Though autistic people can have extensive social circles, many of us struggle to make and even to retain friends, and so we might have fewer invites to Christmas parties than our neurotypical counterparts. Seeing practically everyone around us making merry with their loved ones, can make our own isolation sting all the more keenly. 

    Even if we do have people to spend Christmas with, the feeling of loneliness can be just as hard as the reality. Many of us can feel disjointed and misunderstood, somehow out of step with the rest of the world; we think differently, we act differently, and nobody seems to understand us. Perhaps we have to mask around our extended family to get through dinner, and present a face which is not ours. Perhaps we drink to survive the office Christmas party, and perhaps these people wouldn’t enjoy our company if we were our true selves. These thoughts can manifest in feelings of intense loneliness, even in a room full of people.

    13. Autism and Expectations and Letdowns

    Do you ever find yourself really looking forward to an event, and then the big day arrives, and you feel sort of… deflated? Being disappointed by something not living up to our expectations can be a particular issue for autistic people, as our expectations tend to be so specific. Christmas is a perfect example of this; we have our rituals and our traditions, our annual customs which have to go exactly the way we want them to or it’s the end of the world. Of course, things rarely go exactly to plan. So Christmas day can often prove a disappointment to some degree. 

    Christmas burnout can be a huge factor behind this. We tend to forget how run-down we ended up the year before, and therefore don’t anticipate it happening again. And it’s hard to properly enjoy ourselves when we’re secretly just longing for bed.

    14. Autism and Hugs and Kisses

    Physical affection can be a notorious pitfall for autistic people. Though not always the case, many of us have a complicated relationship with physical endearment; we can find it too intense, too complicated, or even painful at times. This could be the result of sensory issues, having difficulty with the physical sensation of touching another person, be it skin texture, deep pressure, etc. 

    There is also a significant social pressure involved in physical affection. In the Christmas family gathering, for example, working out who to hug and who to offer an awkward smile-and-nod can be a minefield. Do you kiss your grandmother on the cheek, or kiss the air next to it? Has your teenage cousin aged out of tolerating an awkward one-armed hug? God forbid we should engage in anything but a strong handshake with that one uncle. Perhaps if our relatives came with a traffic light system of who to hug and who not to hug, we might have an easier time with physical affection; and perhaps it would make us uncomfortable regardless.

    15. Autism and Christmas Music

    Christmas music is a polarising topic within any demographic, let alone autistic people. On the one hand, it can sync perfectly with the autistic need for repetition; it’s the same handful of songs every year, give or take a few additions and covers (which even the  neurotypical population seems to groan about). Like all that is sparkly and magical about the festive season, Christmas music is something which can easily spark autistic joy, and is a great way to connect with others and feel truly ‘in the moment’. 

    However, if we aren’t fans of Christmas music, its oppressive presence throughout December can have a more harmful effect on us than you might realise. Our sensory sensitivities might mean that Mariah Carey shrieking down the tannoys at Tesco for the tenth time that week might not just be irritating, but physically painful, depending on the volume, playback quality, etc.

    16. Autism and Endings

    Though they are technically separate entities, Christmas and the New Year are often interlinked in our collective psyche; and so too is the concept of ending. This can be a point of significant emotion for everybody; and for many autistic people, endings are something with which we struggle hugely. 

    For one thing, ending something implies that it is complete; and as discussed, we can often feel let down or wanting more if our experience of an event (e.g. Christmas) didn’t live up to our expectations. The end means the experience is over, and there is no further opportunity to do it right. This can sometimes translate to an intense, and often unrealistic desire for closure. 

    Secondly, endings often denote a degree of emotion which may make us uncomfortable, either others’ or our own. For example, at the strike of midnight on New Year’s Eve, we might find a room full of singing, hugging and crying people to be utterly overwhelming; or we might find our own reflections upon the year gone to be ‘too much’ for us to linger on. Moreover, an ending means a new beginning; and this can be a huge source of anxiety for autistic people in itself.

    17. Autism and Community

    Whether we mean a large, established community like a church or a school, or a more informal one like a friendship group or family, this is a concept which is highlighted significantly by Christmas. There seem to be groups of people wherever we go; from the choir in the shopping centre, to the Secret Santa groups, to the teams in the festive pub quiz. 
    Despite its strengths, being autistic can sometimes be incredibly isolating, especially if you do not engage with many (or any) other autistic people. We may feel fully in sync with the neurotypical population; but, more often than not, we can have the feeling of being an alien stranded on earth, desperately trying to blend in. Being surrounded by communities might not only emphasise our loneliness, but our lack of belonging, in a world that was never really made for us.

    18. Autism and New Things

    Though a Christmas present can be anything from a gift card to money to concert tickets, it is almost inevitable that December will bring an influx of stuff. Secret Santas, stocking fillers, socks and aftershave and bath bombs; and no matter how grateful you may be for the sentiment, you will inevitably end up with a sackful of items you have no idea what to do with. 

    Due to our affinity with patterns and order, autistic people tend to prefer their spaces to be organised in a very particular way; therefore an influx of clutter can be very stressful for us. A messy room can be overstimulating, which, heaped on top of the usual Christmas burnout, can easily lead to a meltdown. 

    If we receive an item we could genuinely use, we may become anxious if we already have something filling the role of that item; for example, it took me years to come around to the idea that I could own more than one rucksack. Even if we specifically asked for a new item, our anthropomorphising of inanimate objects (assigning it human traits and feelings) means we can find it difficult to replace an existing possession, even if it is old or broken.

    19. Autism and House Guests

    Every household has a different setup for Christmas day, and for some, this will mean welcoming friends and family into their homes. We’ve already discussed the complex relationship between autism and socialising; but when it comes to house guests, the social pressure has an entirely new dimension to contend with. 

    Depending on how long the guests are due to stay, our socialising skills (and enjoyment) can be significantly tested when there is no definitive end in sight, or when that end is far away. Autistic people are often better at and get more pleasure out of socialising when they see it as a temporary state, and know that they can escape when they need to; but when the socialising is happening in your own home, not only is it harder to get away from, but the haven to which you would usually retreat becomes the very place that you need to escape.

    Autistic people can also often have a harder time sharing our spaces than our neurotypical peers. We tend to have strong feelings as to how things should be- which mug should be used for which beverage, which TV channel should be watched with breakfast, which way round the toilet roll should go- and can really struggle if our routines and surroundings are altered. We can also have a hard time sharing our personal possessions with others, even seemingly insignificant things like cutlery and bedding.

    20. Autism and Money

    Although there are many ways to pull off Christmas on a budget, it is typically a time of enormous expense. Presents, party clothes, food, drinks and events; chances are if you want to participate, you’re going to have to put your hand in your pocket. 

    Whilst autism doesn’t necessarily equate to less money, it can have a significant impact on our finances. As with any disability, being autistic can incur expenses which neurotypical people don’t have to pay; specific clothing, sensory items, access to quiet spaces in events, etc. A more significant issue is our ability to earn money; we may only be able to work part time or temporarily, or be unable to work at all, and schemes like the Personal Independence Payment are notoriously difficult for those with hidden disabilities to obtain. On average, disabled people earn 17% less annual pay than non-disabled people, which increases to 33.5% for disabled people. We may be unable to buy the quantity or quality of Christmas gifts that we would like, or have to pass on events because we can’t afford them; and this can hugely increase our isolation and perception as ‘outsiders’.

    21. Autism and Extended Family

    If there’s ever a time for getting together with distant relatives, it’s Christmas. Whilst we might be excited to see our favourite cousins and wine aunts and crotchety old grandpas, autistic people in particular can have a hard time when it comes to extended family, and other ‘surface-level’ relationships. 

    Besides the usual anxieties that can come with socialising, it can be difficult to navigate a person whom we might only see briefly here and there, yet with whom we are expected to form a genuine and meaningful relationship. Many autistic people require a substantial amount of time, shared experiences and mutual interests before they truly feel comfortable around a person. 

    We can also struggle to moderate our characteristics to be palatable to a particular social dynamic; for example, if we swear and blaspheme in front of our friends, we might find it impossible not to swear and blaspheme in front of Grandma. Some of us swing the other way, switching our personalities like pairs of socks to suit every new person we come into contact with; but this is a form of masking, and is likely to contribute to burnout in the long run. Essentially, we can choose between keeping the peace at the expense of our mental health, or being misunderstood, ostracised or openly criticised for being ourselves. 

    On a lighter note, ‘face-blindness’ is a phenomenon which disproportionately affects neurodivergent people; so if your autistic uncle absolutely never gets your name right, try not to take it personally.

    22. Autism and Commercialism

    If you roll your eyes every time you hear about how commercialised Christmas is nowadays, then you’re not the only one. The festive season seems to divide people into two camps: the Christmas-lovers, and the grinches. Whilst autistic people are not necessarily more likely to fall into the latter camp, we may be less interested in adhering to social trends that commercialism caters to; for example, sending Christmas cards. 

    We may also be far more vocal about these discrepancies than our neurotypical counterparts. This could be for several reasons; for one, we tend to feel very passionately about the political stances we take, so if (for example) we think wrapping paper is bad for the environment, we may feel strongly compelled to convince those around us. Furthermore, our communication differences mean that if a person is becoming bored or disgruntled with our preaching, we might not be able to read this in their body language.

    23. Autism and Winter Weather

    Sadly, the classic Christmas snow we see in ornaments and greetings cards are largely a thing of the past. Nevertheless, December is usually a very cold, dark, wet time of year, and this can impact autistic people in several ways. One thing we can have trouble with is temperature regulation; this means that our bodies do not naturally adjust our temperatures to compensate for our surroundings, so if the space we’re in is cold, we can become very cold. 

    On top of this, we can also be hyper or hyposensitive to temperature. This will be different for each individual, and can range from us feeling cold to the point of physical pain, to not feeling it at all, despite our bodies still being cold. Being hyposensitive to temperature can quickly become dangerous if we do not realise we are getting too cold, and may become ill as a result. This can be exacerbated if we have issues with changing our clothing to suit weather conditions. Autistic people are also more susceptible to mental health issues like SAD- or Seasonal Affective Disorder- which rears its ugly head during the long winter nights.

    24. Autism and Making things

    Dated as it may sound, Christmas crafts are not entirely a thing of the past. With wreath-making classes on the up, and handmade gifts greatly cherished and appreciated, Christmas can be a brilliant time for us creative folk to put our pencils/paint brushes/potter’s wheels/crochet hooks to good use. And contrary to the stereotype, autistic people can be incredibly creative. 

    Whilst there are indeed autistic people for whom imagination is not their strong suit, many of us excel in a specific creative craft, hyperfocusing on said craft for hours on end until we are all but experts. This means that, not only can we hand out unique handmade gifts to our loved ones, but they can often be of a high enough quality to rival- or even surpass- something which we could have bought in a shop. There is also the added benefit of deriving great enjoyment and satisfaction from engaging in our chosen craft, which is especially helpful at a hectic time of year like Christmas. At its best, making things can actually take significant steps to reverse the effects of burnout.

    25. Autism and Christmas Trees

    Christmas trees are a traditional festive staple, brought over from Germany in the 19th Century. Every household has opinions about when to put them up, whether to go real or artificial, what colour lights to use; and us autistic people certainly hold fast to those opinions. The Christmas tree can be one of those traditions which are incredibly important to us, and one askew ornament or misplaced bauble can make us surprisingly distressed. 

    In addition to this, Christmas trees are hugely sensory objects. As with fairy lights, this can have a vastly different effect from person to person, depending on whether we are visual sensory seekers or avoiders. They can be an assault on the senses, or they can be a source of intense joy; or perhaps, neither of the above.

    Autism and Christmas – Summary

    Autistic people are every bit as unique and varied as neurotypical people; and like neurotypical people, we all have a different relationship with the festive season. This Christmas, try to spread goodwill to all mankind by being patient and understanding, and remembering that it’s our quirks and idiosyncrasies which make us human. Merry Christmas, and a happy New Year!

  • Interview with Marcus Mason-Williams: Autistic Author, Artist and Business Owner

    Interview with Marcus Mason-Williams: Autistic author, artist and business owner

    Today we’re really excited to bring you an interview with Marcus Mason-Williams.

    Marcus is an artist and business owner. His art showcases his passion for wildlife and nature, and is influenced by his autism.

    You can check out our interview with Marcus below!

    Interview with Marcus Mason-Williams

    1. How long have you been creating art for? 

    My passion for drawing wildlife began when I was about 5 years old after being introduced to Henry Rousseau’s animal paintings.

    2. What inspires your art?   

    A lot of my artwork is inspired by my heroes Sir David Attenborough, Bill Oddie, Kate Humble, Chris Packham and other wildlife presenters.

    3. What made you want to create art as a business? 

    My first job was working for Kevin Barry Adams at the Glasshouse as a trainee crystal glass cutter – my nickname there was ‘Iceman’ due to the ice patterns I made. It was after this work experience that I decided to set up my own digital art business and with the help of Exceptional Minds (autistic animation studio) in the USA, learned how to use digital software to create my drawings, which are the designs you see on my website

    4. What is your favourite thing being an entrepreneur?

    I am trying to be my very own boss and not having to please someone else’s boss. Not only has it allowed me to pursue my passion, but it has also opened up so many doors for me. I have worked with fellow Special Olympics GB athletes Michael Beynon and Niall Guite on the Unified Business project with Coca-Cola Europacific Partners and Special Olympics GB. I have had help from a number of mentors, including Ben Pearson from Big Clothing4U and Kellie Barker from Born Anxious, who both understand my autism. Through Kellie I have been introduced a well known artist called Dez Noi, LoveArtPix and we are working on a book project together. I love working with local people in the community. I sell my cards in my home village of Barnt Green, in our local gift shop and florists, and my work is displayed in the local dentist’s waiting room. My job allows me to work with nature too – at Wildgoose Rural Training, which I attend two days a week and act as a trainee nature reserve officer. This gives me inspiration. One of my pictures of a goldfinch was inspired by a sighting at the reserve. I also like talking to young people, especially those with special needs, about what they can achieve if given a chance. Recently I talked to students at Rigby Hall School as part of National Careers Week. It’s not about making money to me, it is about playing your part and trying to do what is best for the world.

    5. Have you worked with any big brands as part of your work? 

    I have been lucky to work with some big brands.I have had work experience with the design team at KPMG. I am being trained by Neil Kerber, a cartoonist with Private Eye and by Aaron Blaise, a Disney animator. I am being supported by Special Olympics GB, part of a large global charity. Through them I have worked with Coca-Cola Europacific Partners a number of media and PR companies. My first illustrated book, Zooland A Sign of Hope, was signed by Gareth Southgate (England Football Manager) and Steve Clarke (Scotland Football Manager). My customers include The Wildlife Trusts and The Rivers Trust. However, I love also being able to work with inspiring individuals, especially those like Dez and Kellie who understand my autism.

    6. Do you have any tips or advice for other autistic people wanting to create art as a business? 

    Be yourself. Focus on what you are good at and try and find friends and helpers to fix the gaps. It is not always about winning or losing it is about having fun, testing yourself and seeing if you have what it takes to go the distance. I have two sayings that inspire me:

    “This is not the finish line, my friends.  This is the start of the race.  The future is the finish line.  And our combined skills and geniuses, working together, are just the thing to get us there.”

    Jeff Bridges, Seabiscuit

    The second saying is:

    “It ain’t how hard you hit; it’s about how hard you can get hit, and keep moving forward. How much you can take, and keep moving forward. That’s how winning is done.“

    Silvester Stallone, Rocky Balboa
  • Autistic Comfort Foods and Breaking our Beige Boundaries

    Autism and Comfort Foods

    Perhaps one of the more commonly known Autistic traits is being a “fussy eater”. 

    As an autistic person, maybe you don’t want your foods to touch, or you can’t cope with strong flavours. Perhaps you’ve been told to stop eating with your eyes, or you’ve been forced to try something new. I’ve often explained my eating habits by telling people “I don’t like mixing my wets and my drys” (aka a dry food should never touch a sauce unless I decide I want them mixed that way). 

    New foods can be scary, especially food that we may not recognise. Trying something new isn’t always as easy as it sounds, especially for autistic people who may struggle in particular with new and unusual flavours and/ or textures. I find myself particularly susceptible to the smell of foods over taste, and would often decide what I will and won’t try based on smell alone. 

    Plus, there are also external factors that aren’t the food itself that can add to the stress of mealtimes. The sounds of eating, such as people chewing and cutlery scraping against plates, plus the social expectations if you’re at a sit down meal can further reinforce our food limits. 

    These elements can go beyond unfamiliar and into overwhelming, and autistic people may experience sensory overload with new foods.

    The barriers of being an autistic “fussy eater”

    In my primary school canteen the table on the far left was known simply as “the fussy table”, and everyone knew that to be sent to the fussy table was the ultimate humiliation. When I was eight I firmly told the dinner lady that I didn’t want to eat the curry they had served, and in response I was force fed a spoonful which resulted in me boycotting curry for an entire decade. The worst part was that I was sent to the fussy table. But what the dinner ladies had failed to mention, however, is that the fussy table was served pizza for lunch every day. Go figure.

    Building a stigma around the “fussy table” built up social pressure in the school for children to be pushed outside their comfort zones with food. Everyone was expected to eat what was put in front of them, and to say no was to misbehave. Rather than fostering a culture of exploration, the school used food as a measure of discipline, building negative associations for me and many other children who were labelled fussy eaters.

    However, being a fussy eater is complicated. You don’t know if a restaurant will serve food that you like, and any foods you do like may come smothered in a sauce that renders it inedible. You feel awkward and difficult making special requests to service staff, without something like an allergy which may serve to “justify” your request.

    This fear of food can make any meal stressful. It can affect holidays, events and special occasions. It may play on your mind from the moment someone suggests going out to eat. Whilst these barriers may not be insurmountable for an autistic person, they can be stressful and upsetting.

    Step by step plan to try new foods as an autistic “fussy eater”

    Below is a small step by step guide that may be helpful for an autistic person wanting to try new foods. 

    It’s important to remember that every autistic person is different, and what’s worked for me as someone who is autistic may not work for another person who is also autistic.

    Step 1: Understand your current food boundaries

    Knowing your boundaries when it comes to foods is not a negative thing, nor should it be portrayed as one. Having comfort foods, preferences for a certain type of food, and knowing what you are and aren’t willing to try is perfectly acceptable.

    Before you start trying new foods, it’s helpful to work on identifying your needs, boundaries, and comfort foods. These can be statements like “I will not eat dry foods and wet foods mixed”, “I hate eating things with a thick texture”, or “I absolutely love chicken nuggets and will always eat them”. 

    Having these boundaries cemented means; 

    1. You can be certain where you are starting out from, identify any progress you make, and celebrate it. You will be able to look back at yourself only eating plain pasta, and be proud as you happily chow down on mac and cheese. 
    2. Allows you to communicate your boundaries to others. It’s much easier to test your boundaries and try new foods if others are aware of them, and can support you as you try new foods outside of your comfort zone. 
    3. You have a known safety net you can rely on. For example, say chips are one of your safety foods, and you go out for a meal and order a burger and chips. The burger has a sauce that you weren’t expecting and can’t manage to eat. But thankfully, you know chips are your comfort food, and you can just have the chips to eat instead. 

    Step 2: Identify what food growth you’d like to make

    Some autistic people only eat plain pasta… and they’re absolutely fine with that. Whereas others want to be able to eat a few different pasta dishes, just in case they go out for a meal and plain pasta isn’t an option. 

    It’s important to map out what growth you’d like to make as an autistic eater so you have a clear goal to reach. Try to make your goals small and reasonable so you’re not setting yourself up for failure, and make sure they’re goals that you as an autistic person want to achieve, rather than food goals that someone else or society is making you feel you should be achieving. 

    Your goals could be as broad as trying everything at least once, or simply accepting small changes to dishes you are already comfortable with. 

    Step 3: Try something new

    Once you are aware of your current food boundaries and where you’d like to be heading with them, if you’re comfortable, you can start to try new things. 

    Remember that “new” can mean a range of different things, such as;

    • A completely new dish
    • A new texture or flavour 
    • A new way of preparing a current comfort food, like pasta with sauce rather than plain 
    • Combining multiple textures or flavours in a way that’s new to you, like peanut butter and marmite on your toast together 

    Don’t overload yourself; if you know you struggle with both textures and flavours, you can stick to a texture you know and are comfortable with, but try a new flavour (like a new ice cream flavour if you enjoy ice cream, for example). 

    Tips to help you try new foods as an autistic person

    Below are some tips to keep in mind as you start trying new foods as an autistic person;

    Tip 1: Take small steps

    Broadening your food horizons is a marathon, not a sprint, and small steps are not to be scoffed at. 

    My comfort food growing up was plain pasta. I would only eat pasta with butter stirred in, never a pasta bake or pasta salad. However, my mother began by adding cheese. From there I discovered I was okay with Mac n Cheese, and then uni introduced a whole world of pasta sauces to me. I’m still not a big fan of bolognaise, but I love alfredo sauce. Through this granular exploration I was able to explore my love of pasta at my own pace. Sure, it felt embarrassing asking the University caterers for a plateful of plain spaghetti, but I was comfortable and that’s what matters.

    There’s a large amount of growth between eating only plain pasta vs eating pasta with a range of different pasta sauces. But it was only because of the small steps that were taken over a long period that this became possible for me. 

    Don’t overwhelm yourself; take small steps, in your own time. 

    Tip 2: Don’t be afraid to ask for help

    Whilst you’re the person trying the new foods, you shouldn’t be afraid to ask for help from those around you. 

    You can ask a friend or relative to be your designated person to probe at restaurants if you’re not comfortable doing so; for example, discuss with restaurant staff if the burger you’re thinking of ordering is smothered in a sauce or if it comes on the side.  

    If you’re eating out with friends and you don’t want to order something you may not like, see if they will give you a bite of their food. That way you can explore without the pressure of finishing a meal you may not like- and without going hungry!

    Remember, whilst you may feel uncomfortable asking for their help, those around you should be supportive in your quest, and will hopefully also be there to celebrate any progress you make.

    Tip 3: Consider your other autistic sensitivities

    We often forget that there are other things around the food itself that can be an issue for autistic people. 

    If you’re an autistic person wanting to try new foods, if you are able to, remember the other sensitivities you may have and control them if possible. 

    For example;

    • If you find social expectations difficult, you can try new foods when you are alone so you don’t have to concentrate on masking. 
    • Consider your other senses; perhaps play music to drown out sounds that may bother you, or light a scented candle you like the smell of if you know certain food smells may be too overpowering for you.   

    Tip 4: Consider there are external factors beyond your control

    It’s important to consider that social and economic factors may affect your tastes, and your ability to branch out. 

    It wasn’t until I was exposed to a multitude of foods from different cultures at University that my pallet began to truly expand. I was lucky enough to be in a position where this food was affordable and readily available to me. 

    Not everyone has the opportunity to try new foods, and you should not put pressure on yourself if you are not able to try new foods due to factors that are beyond your control. 

    Tip 5: Remember progress isn’t linear

    As an autistic person, your needs change daily, depending on what’s going on around you. 

    Keep this in mind as you try new foods; some days you’ll feel excited to try an unknown dish, whereas other times you’ll just manage a plate of chicken nuggets, and that’s totally okay. 

    I can still look back and see obvious progress, as I know years ago I wouldn’t have gone anywhere near an unknown recipe! 

    Executive dysfunction and autistic eating

    Executive functioning refers to the mental processes that enable us to complete tasks, including planning, focusing attention, remembering, and juggling multiple tasks.

    Autistic people may have debilitating issues with executive functioning, and whilst many of us can still plan and carry out complex tasks, it takes considerable effort. 

    This can be evident when it comes to cooking as an autistic person; there are many stages involved in preparing a meal, from the initial stages of gathering the ingredients, then preparing the ingredients, to actually cooking the meal.  

    Cooking new foods is an even bigger demand on our executive functioning skills, as it presents a lot of new steps that are considerably easier for a non-autistic person to conduct. We have to first find a new recipe, then purchase new ingredients we may not already have, and follow a process that is new to us to prepare and cook the food. 

    Executive dysfunction tips for an autistic person wanting to cook new foods

    If you struggle with executive functioning as an autistic person, but still want to try new foods, here are some tips you could try; 

    1. Spread the whole process out into smaller, more manageable steps. For example, you could do any prep of the ingredients (such as washing and cutting veg) the night before you’re cooking a new meal. 
    2. Assign demanding requirements to someone else. If you know you struggle with chopping vegetables as an autistic person, you could ask someone else to do this for you. 
    3. Look for small things that will add up to make your cooking process easier. If you know grating cheese will take a lot of the energy needed to cook a new pasta bake from you, conserve that energy by purchasing some pre-grated cheese instead. 
    4. Try a recipe you already know, but with a new or swapped ingredient. Often the process of following a whole new recipe can be difficult; you could try following a recipe you already know, but adding an extra new ingredient or swapping a current ingredient for a new one, as a way to try a new food. Like swapping spinach in a curry to chunks of celery. 

    Conclusion on autistic comfort foods

    Whilst there is nothing wrong with having autistic comfort foods, if you want to expand your tastes, remember it’s a gradual process. 

    I would no longer consider myself a “fussy eater”, but it took years of trying new things, feeling awkward in restaurants and leaving food behind on my plate. There are still foods I dislike, but I find I can try new things easily. 

    Be kind to yourself as you go through this process. I always listen to my body; sometimes I don’t want to try something new, and that’s okay. Remember that this is first and foremost about you and what you want to achieve as an autistic eater. 

    And whilst I’m proud of how far I’ve come, I’ll never say no to a bowl of buttery pasta.

    References and Resources related to Autism Comfort Foods

  • Exclusive Interview with Charlie M baker – Author of “Charlie Baker: Autism And Me”

    Blog post featured image with text that reads Exclusive Interview with Charlie M Baker - Author of “Charlie Baker: Autism And Me”

    The Wyrd Sisters’s Exclusive Interview with author Charlie Michael Baker

    Today we are very excited to bring you an exclusive interview with author Charlie M Baker.

    After being bullied during his school years for being “different’ (including being assaulted), Charlie decided to self-publish his journal where he wrote his experiences into a book to raise awareness of autism.

    The book is called “Charlie Baker: Autism And Me”. Both he and his book quickly became a success; he has almost 1 million Instagram followers at the time of writing, and has now published multiple books about autism. He has also donated hundreds of thousands to autism charities.

    All three of us at The Wyrd Sisters were very excited to talk to Charlie, with our common interests including autism advocacy and writing.

    You can check out our exclusive interview with Charlie below!

    Exclusive Interview with Charlie M Baker

    1. How old were you when you were diagnosed as autistic?

    I was 6 years old when I was diagnosed with autism. 

    2. What was your initial reaction when you were diagnosed?

    When I was diagnosed, I think I was too young for I have it all processed so it’s only really just starting to process now, at 16, after learning about what having autism really means. 

    3. How do you feel about your diagnosis now?

    As I’m just starting to process my diagnosis 10 years on, I’m proud to be a part of the ASD community and I am more than prouder to be advocating it!! 

    4. What are your struggles with being autistic?

    My struggles are actually more socialising (which is surprising due to my career choices). I don’t really have many sensory struggles, more just social anxiety. 

    5. What made you want to write a book?  

    Christine McGuinness inspired my journey a lot as a young author. I saw Christine advocating autism and I saw everything she was doing for the community and I saw that not many people were speaking up and advocating autism – so I did. Now Christine and I have built an online friendship and she’s the loveliest, most supportive person ever. 

    6. Has your life changed since writing a book? If so, how?

    My life has changed so much from writing my book and being placed in the public eye. Lots of changes have to be made when you’re famous, especially as an autistic person with social anxiety!!

    7. Any tips or advice for other neurodivergent people wanting to become an author? 

    My only advice to anyone in life is do it! You’ll never know the outcome unless you try it so never ever second guess yourself!!