Cooking can be more challenging for people who are neurodiverse than for the average neurotypical person. I have Asperger’s Syndrome, which is a condition on the Autism Spectrum, and I am also dyslexic which is a Specific Learning Difference (SpLD). I’m pretty confident that I also have dyscalculia although I have never really been tested for that so don’t have a diagnosis. SpLDs and Autism Spectrum Conditions (ASCs) often overlap and anyone with an SpLD or an ASC is considered neurodiverse, as opposed to neurotypical which is a person without an of these neurological/behavioural conditions. Every neurodiverse person is affected differently by their condition and obviously I can only speak for myself, but in this series of posts I will share how my neurodiversity affects me, specifically the challenges it raises and the ways that I have learnt to cope with them and overcome some of my difficulties.
Today I cooked our evening meal for me and my partner. I’m not sure it really counts to call it “cooking” because all I did was put some things in the oven (Quorn mozarella escalopes and chips, if you’re interested) and then heat up a tin of mixed bean salad in a pan on the stove. It took about 20 minutes and required minimal effort for the average person. However I’m not the average person and even creating this simple meal for us has it’s challenges for me.
One of the ways I am affected by my neurodiversity is that I have great trouble in dealing with numbers. I find mental arithmetic extremely challenging and often make incorrect calculations in my head so I rely on my partner a lot for this. Cooking involves some amount of mental arithmetic because you have to be able to add up and subtract numbers in your head to be able to time different things that you’re cooking so that everything isn’t ready at different times and then things get cold. This is something that I struggle with and I often have to ask my partner to do the maths for me, or if he’s not around then obviously I would have to use a calculator or write it down on paper. Sometimes I can do it myself but I check with my partner to make sure I’ve done it correctly – because sometimes I don’t and I’ve done it all wrong and our dinner items are all ready at different times and things get cold and it’s not great! I also struggle with telling the time, particularly with the 24hr clock and at the moment our main clock is the one on my our stereo which is 24hr so that is quite challenging for me and again I have to frequently ask my partner questions like “this says it will take 15 minutes – what time will it be in 15 minutes time?” and the like. It can be quite embarrassing to admit to being so appalling at such basic skills but I understand it is the way that my conditions affect me and is not an indicator of my intelligence in other areas (for example, I have a very high verbal IQ!).
Another difficulty with preparing food is that I have problems with concentration and organisation, as well as a poor short-term memory. Once the timings have been worked out, I have to remember to check back on the food, or to take it out of the oven, etc. I am scatter brained and sometimes forget, resulting in burnt food, woops. I try and mitigate this by not getting involved in anything mid-cooking like I will try to avoid reading an article while I’ve got food in the oven because otherwise I will be distracted and forget about the food! I try to stay in or near to the kitchen and keep busy with kitchen-related things like drying clean cutlery or setting the table to keep me focused on the task at hand, namely: dinner! Another way I can cope with this is by setting alarms on my phone but I don’t really like to do that as I have very sensitive hearing and am very jumpy and tend to jump out of my skin when alarms go off so it’s not a very comfortable coping mechanism for me, but is certainly an option and one that a lot of other neurodiverse people use.
Finally, my neurodiversity also affects my motor skills. I have poor propioception and poor coordination. Most people probably think such a simple meal doesn’t really involve motor skills much – I mean, it’s not exactly cake decorating, is it? But my difficulties in this area are significant. I find it difficult to put things into the oven – this requires balance, coordination, making sure the food goes on the shelf properly and safely so it cooks properly and so that I don’t burn myself. I have a thick pair of oven gloves that I use, but I am always anxious about burning myself nonetheless and I have indeed burned myself a number of times. Things like pasta bakes are more challenging because they are liquid, in heavy baking trays, and there is a dip at the beginning of the oven shelf that you have to lean in past to put it safely on the shelf, so that all makes it quite difficult. I made pasta bake yesterday and I was noticeably anxious putting the baking dish in and out of the oven – but with deep breaths and concentration, I managed, and it tasted delicious! I also obviously have difficulty chopping up vegetables, for example. I can’t chop neatly, my veg comes out in all kinds of shapes and sizes, and I have to be very careful not to cut myself and sometimes I still manage it. My soup is a fabulous broth of random sized pieces of veg! But it’s the best that I can do and it tastes good, so I can’t let myself get hung up on it.
I will likely never be able to cook elaborate meals, to decorate a cake, or anything fancy like that. But I can manage with effective coping strategies and the practical help and moral support of my partner to cook simple, nutritious meals and that is a success for me and all that is necessary to live a happy, healthy life when it comes to meals.