Lydia Wilkins is getting ready for the launch of her first cookbook. Featuring recipes from over 30 autistic people, The Autism Friendly Cookbook will be released on 21 November, and Lydia shares what led her to curating her first recipe book specifically designed for autistic people
Do you laugh or cry? Anyone who has applied for Personal Independence Payment (PIP) will know that feeling. During the first lockdown, I had been made aware that this was something I was eligible for, thanks to the Equality Act stipulating that, yes, autism is legally a disability, here was a method of support that I had gone without for so long. Had I placed a bet as to the eventual turnout, this would have made me a rich woman.
Articles litter the internet detailing how diabolically awful the service is, and how ableism is ingrained at a base level throughout. I have a degree of privilege in that I am able to speak and engage with people; this is so often reflected by the surprise people express when they find out I am autistic. You do not see the hours of preparation, planning, scripting to just be able to sit at the table with ordinary folk, let alone to even be a part of proceedings. You don’t see the frustration, the learning, the constant adjusting. Character references had to be presented to the service. A specialist in ‘autistic girls’ (I am over 18, therefore not a girl) assessed me initially. Ostensibly I just need prompting to talk to people, and show no sign of communication issues – which is arguably the definition of autism on a medical level! I can ostensibly read without assistance, despite being a full-time glasses wearer – with a pretty strong prescription for the lenses I have. Key skills such as cooking, despite my spiky profile and terrible motor skills limiting me in some aspects, can ‘just be learnt’. The strong implication under the spiky words of a stranger was that this was somehow a lifestyle choice I had willingly chosen.
In the end, I had to go all the way to a tribunal, which rounded off an extraordinarily stressful 16 months. That was arduous, in particular, and the whole process beyond humiliating and degrading.
The commentary around cooking and preparing a fresh meal particularly caught my eye, clicking something in my brain. I had always found this activity immensely difficult, but no one had ever suggested that being autistic may have had any kind of connection. Hypersensitivity to sound can become unbearable in a kitchen, along with smells – and that is before you actually start cooking or the consumption! Resources are lacking for putting together information on sensory issues and how to adapt, or even just the physical adaptations you can make in the kitchen, such as when it comes to using weighted cutlery. When it comes to recipes, the language that is so often used is tricky to interpret – and I am not the only person to write this out in my own words. Timings are tricky to master, and executive functioning issues can quickly become paralysing. Googling disability-related cookbooks left me disheartened, as the emphasis was so often on the ‘junk science’ that if you eat better, you can ‘cure’ yourself.
Around the same kind of time, my mentor died suddenly. The last thing he’d ever said to me acted as something of a spark to the fuse of an idea. We’d spoken about conversations about me ghostwriting the book of someone we both knew at the time – and the excitement on that was almost child-like, immediately instructing me how to write this, who to talk to, why, and what questions to ask. The voice whispered down the phone line, from thousands of miles away. If I was to ever be offered a contract, send it to me, it said. Knowing that someone, somewhere, has faith in you is a powerful act. I never thought I’d put pen to paper as part of a long form project; that to me was what the ‘boy’s club’ of ‘proper journalists’ would do!
The Autism Friendly Cookbook has 100 recipes, with 30 coming from other autistic individuals. They are categorised with a key for sensory needs, as well as dietary requirements; most have some kind of story attached, too. I have also added a skills ‘band’ – so if you struggle, say, with timing, then you have more agency in tailoring your food to you. There is also an energy rank, too. Other chapters deal with sensory issues and how to adapt, as well as advice for parents, teachers, guardians, or relatives. It was important to me to put autistic and disabled voices front and centre; there is a tiny number of non-disabled people who have made this book happen, probably less than ten.
Not all autistic individuals will struggle – but I’d argue that those who don’t are extraordinarily lucky, and probably the product of a degree of privilege, such as if someone in a supporting role has had the time to teach and adapt to your specific needs. Research is suggesting more and more that eating disorders may potentially have an overlap in autistic women, for example. Those who use a food bank are more likely to be disabled, too. A conversation about this needs to start, desperately, especially given we now grapple at the coalface with the cost of living crisis.
The Autism Friendly Cookbook will be released on 21 November and is currently available to pre-order on Amazon.
Follow Lydia Wilkins on Twitter @Journo_Lydia
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