The Autistic Kitchen
I can easily spend hours at a time in my kitchen. It’s where I gravitate to in my down-time; where I decompress, gather and ground myself. It’s where I can truly be me. When you’re a late-diagnosed autistic adult, this means having the space to give full expression to your unmasked autistic self. It’s recently occurred to me just how autistic I am in my kitchen.
It helps that I’m really into food and love to cook
Autistic people have a complex relationship with food due to the way our brains process sensory input. For some, this plays out in sensory sensitivities that make certain foods intolerable due to their texture, taste or smell. They may have a preference for plain, predictable food as a result. I tend to be at the sensory-seeking end where I crave intensity, novelty and variety. I also have a heightened sense of smell which means that not only will I be the first to know if something is burning, but the sniff test will tell me instantly if cream is on the turn. I tend to have a sense of what flavours and textures will go together and I’m not afraid to experiment.
There have been times where I’ve pursued planning, sourcing and preparing food with a zeal people have found odd. I suppose it’s what we call a special interest. I’ve got cookbooks at every turn but am tending more to a go-to website where I’ve got hundreds of recipes saved and categorised.
I also love gadgets. I’m not talking about fancy multi-function appliances that cost as much as a second-hand car. I’d much prefer to have a vast collection of small implements for specific purposes: melon ballers, lemon zesters, olive pitters, piping bags for icing cakes.
I find watching cooking programs incredibly soothing if I’m feeling a bit burnt out. It’s got to be the ones with a nice predictable formula, not the stressful competitive ones like Masterchef.
Everything has its place
I’m reminded every day how fortunate I was to be able to design my own kitchen a few years ago. There’s probably the odd thing I’d fine-tune given the chance but I’m attached to it because it feels like an extension of me. There’s a home for everything: the large appliances have their own cupboard, platters and serving dishes have their own drawer, and there’s a cupboard with three shelves for tea and coffee. I find it deeply reassuring to when things are in easy reach when I need them. There’s nothing worse than being thwarted from cooking eggs for breakfast because you can’t lay your hands on a serviceable frying pan.
Pantry shelves are category based: baking, cereal, tins, condiments. I like that my 17 kinds of oil and 14 kinds of vinegar are in the one place. Everything that gets opened goes in a glass canister. I have to stop myself recoiling with horror if I’m ever confronted by a pantry full of opened packets scattered in random order.
Apart from the toaster, kettle, knifeblock and fruitbowl it’s pretty much clutter free. All’s well with the world if I can see a clean sweep of kitchen island bench first thing in the morning.
Cleaning up: I’ve got this
I don’t mind cleaning up my kitchen. I think it’s because I’ve got a system that minimises the unknowns. I find the prospect of cleaning up someone else’s kitchen daunting if I don’t know where things go.
I’m soothed by the repetitive rhythms of washing up or packing the dishwasher. There’s a lot to be said for being able to complete a task from beginning to end with complete control of the process. How often does that happen in life? Sometimes if I can’t sleep I’ll just get up and unpack the dishwasher.
If I’ve had a particularly intense cooking session the cleaning up can get away from me. My executive function can get a bit shaky and I need to plan my attack. Generally, breaking things down into smaller tasks is the way to go: I’ll clean the bench, then pack the dishwasher then scrub the saucepans, each in 15 minute blitzes. Paradoxically listening to music or a podcast while doing it helps focus my mind; almost like I’m tricking it.
Sharing the space
It’s very challenging for me to share with someone else a space that I inhabit so fully. So I’ve had to make an effort when it comes to relationships that I want to maintain. I’ve written about how I’ve navigated this in past relationships and with my daughter. It really comes down to making a conscious effort to step back and let go. I figure it’s worth encouraging an 11 year old who wants to cook me dinner.
Many autistic people say that they’re only disabled to the extent that the social world is unable to accommodate them. We don’t feel disabled at home where we can arrange things to suit our preferences and comfort levels. Being able to control your environment can provide the much needed reassurance of finding order in a chaotic world. Having the space to explore our passions lets us tune in to our authentic selves.
I’ve written about how autistic people can build on their strengths here: