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Asparagus Syndrome: The Newly Gourmand Life of an Impossibly Picky Eater

Last week, I burned the lasagna. I remember opening the oven, full of anticipation and nervous excitement, only to have my hopes dashed on the rocks at the sight of the undercooked noodles and scorched earth-colored Parmesan cheese.

Amy Gravino

Amy Gravino

Was it the glass baking pan? Should I not have halved the recipe? The questions that flooded my mind came with an even greater realization: that just a few years ago, I wouldn’t even be eating lasagna, let alone going through the trials and tribulations of making it from scratch.

Like many folks with Asperger’s Syndrome, my life has been the story of food sensitivities—problems with the smell, taste, and especially textures of varying dishes prevented me from having a “normal” eating experience. Scraping the cheese off pizza. Cutting the edges off of pancakes and steak. Peeling the skin from grilled hot dogs. I had a list a mile long of different things that I needed to do to different foods to make them my definition of “edible.” And don’t even get me started on my dissection of pre-made sandwiches!

But I never considered these things odd. It was only when others started pointing it out—gawking at me as though a curiosity in a circus sideshow—that I became aware, and painfully self-conscious of how I ate. My own (most likely Aspie, too) father expressed a strong distaste for eating with me, citing his disgust at me using my fingers to pick things apart.

I still don’t know what changed. Maybe it was going to college, being exposed to other types of food. I slowly began to try cuisine from other cultures—Japanese, Indian, Thai—foods that would have been beyond off-limits before then. And somewhere between barely being able to use a fork and nimbly picking up a single grain of rice with a pair of chopsticks, food became about more than just sustenance. It became a passion.

Stews, soups, stir-fries, casseroles, curries, quiches, tarts, pies, trifles, cakes, cookies. I have cooked and baked them all as time has gone on, delighting in turning an assortment of random ingredients into a magnificent finished product. Bringing pleasure to those who eat and enjoy my cooking has been an unexpected and welcome side-effect of this, my first-ever “perseverative interest.”

One particular memory that I have is from before I really got into cooking, as a child visiting my grandparents in New Jersey. I loved making pancakes for our family, and every night before bed, I would get out the cream-colored rubber measuring bowl, the pancake mix, and all of the other tools needed. It was routine, one of the things in which I found great comfort, but more than that, it gave me purpose.

Having a sense of purpose when it comes to eating can achieve so much. Knowing that you are capable of stirring a bowl of ingredients, or chopping vegetables gives a person the sense of usefulness. The majority of my childhood was spent feeling useless, socially inept, and incapable. To get out that pancake mix and set the table made me feel as though I were exerting even a small amount of control over something in my life, and for a child with special needs, that can make all the difference.

Now, hundreds of photos of dishes that I have cooked fill albums of mine on Facebook. These dishes are the product of that control—quiet half-hours spent in my kitchen dicing carrots, sautéing onions, or kneading a ball of dough with my own two lightly-floured hands. Cooking brings me peace of mind, a calmness from truly knowing that I am useful, I am talented, I am able. It is a part of me that I can share with the world, a part that sustains and continues on, and that I hope always will.

Amy Gravino, BA, a certified coach for individuals with Asperger Syndrome, is also diagnosed with AS. She is attending graduate school to obtain a masters degree in Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA). Amy offers private services as an Asperger Syndrome college coach. She hopes to work on a college or university campus helping students with AS thrive and succeed both academically and personally in a higher education setting. To read more of Amy’s writing, please visit her official webpage: www.amygravino.com.

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