The first of a three-part reflection on autism and diet from personal experience.
At the age of seven I was already finding it more difficult than I admitted to settle into a new school where little did I know I had been put a year group ahead of where I would normally be along with four others in my class, owing to a restructure that was due to happen later that year. It was already pretty difficult to suddenly be told one was too old for the majority of one’s storybooks and to have to pretend one enjoyed drawing pictures of Roman soldiers and sabre-toothed tigers.
But there was a harder struggle to come. One night at bedtime as we had our chat (which I sometimes preferred over a story) my mother announced that I was allergic to milk. I had never heard the word ‘allergic’ before. But as the conversation went on it transpired that most of my favourite foods had been deemed bad for me owing to the presence of milk. Macaroni cheese, ice cream, almost all chocolate… I wept as I was told this and the following morning had the displeasure of witnessing my mother write a letter to my teacher to make sure I stuck to this rigid new diet and that the dinner ladies would be armed with the line “No you can’t have that dear” for shortbread etc, which didn’t help when you consider that the school’s diet was totally vegetarian, consisting mostly at the time of lettuce and hot mush and therefore pretty limited anyway in terms of things I liked.
I had no idea what all this was about really. Mum said it had something to do with a lock of my hair having been analysed. Some months later I asked “What happens when I eat something I’m allergic to?” My mother’s reply was along these lines. “Well all the bits of the food go to the parts of the body and the parts of the body say “We don’t like it, we don’t like it” and it makes the person very unhappy.” It was even assumed that my non-stop crying as a baby was because of the milk I was being fed at the time.
As the year progressed it was decided I was allergic to poultry as well so chicken and eggs were out of the window. One day at school, the dinner ladies naively told me that they had checked with the school kitchen that no forbidden ingredients were included in the sponge pudding. I was pleased to tell my mother this that evening but as soon as I broke wind audibly she said “I bet it’s that sponge pudding… next time they offer it to you tell them I said you may not have any!”
It was only in later years that I discovered that this change of diet was to try and discover the source of my learning difficulties. I only became aware of this in conversation with an old friend of my mother’s some years after her death. “Yes your mother was trying lots of things… therapy, diets…”
“Diets?” I remarked. Then I suddenly remembered. And it all made sense.
At the tender age of seven the only thing I was acutely aware of being a problem was the fact that I was still afraid of lots of things. It had taken the best part of my life up to that point not to be obsessively spooked out by the sight of the moon or feel everybody’s footwear was pulling faces at me – I resisted going into Clarks until I was five. I guess I was aware I was also what one might call ‘eccentric’ and struggled with PE at school and I knew I was seeing a psychoanalyst ostensibly to “talk about [my] feelings”. But never was I told that this diet was intended to be a panacea for it. The possibility of autism had been considered but seemingly rejected as I grew out of some of the more drastic manifestations of the classic traits and there was then little concept of there being maybe varying degrees of autism.
When I talked about it with my father in the years after Mum’s death he told me he thought the lock of hair analysis stuff was rubbish (a valid opinion given he was a scientist) but that Mum was desperate and that he had caved in and allowed her to pursue this lead.
At any rate, it wasn’t a cure-all and I believe the general feeling that everything was forbidden and I was staring into a long miserable future caused me to take refuge in eccentric behaviour rather more than usual. A perusal of my father’s journals recounts a day he and Mum could hear me clattering two jelly moulds together around that time – I had become obsessed with food and thought about it constantly.
It was a few weeks after that that I was ultimately relieved of my ordeal. My father reminded me of the details of it in his later years. It was the Tuesday of half-term and we were in London for the day seeing St Paul’s Cathedral. Apparently at some point I’d seen an ice-cream seller and begged for a one-off treat, and at Dad’s persuasion, Mum tentatively agreed to an experiment. When there was no adverse reaction, I was reprieved from the no-milk diet with immediate effect.
Finally a forbidden pleasure had become permitted again and I was free to focus on my development without having to avoid anything at lunchtime, with the initial exception hard boiled eggs (I think that must have been the flatulence). Even then Mum had to come into school and tell the dinner ladies they didn’t have to say “No you can’t have that dear” anymore.
My behaviour improved and my eccentricities less pronounced around that time. Also being with kids who’d just moved up from the year I’d had to skip made me feel somewhat resynchronised and life became happier again. There’d be another diet in my teens but that… is another story.