Memory Lane: Macaroni & Cheese
You know the kind. That’s right - good old fashioned Kraft Macaroni and Cheese, in the royal blue box, complete with cheese packet and “just add milk“ instructions. A common staple in the diet of many kids across the US, and indeed - for some - the only staple!
While I definitely loved Kraft Mac&Cheese as a kid, I was a special case. (No surprise.) I had discovered the existence of Kraft Mac&Cheese with character-shaped noodles.
This particular discovery led to trouble one afternoon, while out grocery shopping with my father and younger sister.
I was around 10 years old. We were living with Dad in the southern part of the US at the time, and this was our first grocery trip since getting settled in with him, to stock up on the food we kids would need while staying with him. My parents divorced when I was young, and while my sister and I spent most of our time at "home base," so-to-speak, with our mother in Michigan, we were always free to live with our father whenever it made sense. Mom was the main source of income in our family, and Dad was often moving all around the country between different jobs, which meant we got the chance to travel a lot with him when we were growing up.
"Sarah?" Dad said, puzzled. "Why is there Rugrats macaroni and cheese in the cart?"
"That's the kind of macaroni and cheese I like." I answered as Dad picked it up, looking at the price tag.
"Well," he said, his voice matter-of-fact. "It's the same as the regular kind, even though it's more expensive than the regular kind, so we're just going to get the regular mac and cheese, okay? Put this back please." He handed the 2 or 3 boxes of Rugrats-shaped macaroni back to me with one hand, while he reached for the regular macaroni-shaped boxes on the shelf with his other hand.
"But, I like this kind," I protested. "It tastes better."
This was highly unusual behavior for me. I very rarely protested anything as a kid. I very rarely showed preference for something over another. But when I did have a preference, look out. On the few things that mattered to me, like keeping my bedroom window open as a teenager, I could persist through hell or high water.
"It does not taste better," Dad retorted, annoyed. "You just like it because of the little characters."
Affronted, I stood in shock, Rugrats boxes still in-hand.
By the time I found my voice again, Dad had already replaced my selection with the regular mac and cheese and started halfway down the aisle, pushing my sister along in the cart.
Determined now not only to have the Rugrats mac and cheese, but also to speak the truth and combat injustice, I called after him. "No, Dad, it does taste better! It's cheesier!"
"Sarah, put them back and stay with me! It does not taste better! You are just spoiled!"
This proclamation, shouted halfway across the grocery store, cut me to the core.
In my 10-year-old mind, I was devastated. How could he - my own father - know so little of my soul, understand so little of my true nature, my intentions, my core personality, as to think me spoiled? To think that I would be so petty as to insist on Rugrats macaroni and cheese just because of something as superfluous as the fanciful shapes?
In truth, the macaroni could have been fashioned after any old characters. I had as little regard for whichever cartoon show got the marketing deal as I did for whatever color the tiles were of the grocery store floor.
The simple fact - which I had no tools to articulate at age 10 - was that character-shaped macaroni tasted better to me, because A) larger noodles in the same size box meant that there was a higher cheese-to-noodle ratio, which did, in reality, make the macaroni taste cheesier than the regular kind, and B) larger noodles in odd shapes with the same preparation cooking time also meant that the noodles themselves turned out more al dente - not as soft-cooked - making for a much more pleasurable eating experience. Even now, after perhaps 15 years of never eating the stuff, I can remember vividly - and fondly - the feeling of an al dente Rugrats noodle in extra-cheesy Kraft sauce giving way between my teeth.
Many children with ASD have similarly restrictive tastes in food. Having "food sensitivities," as the world calls it, means that highly subtle differences in texture, taste, smell, etc. - which most of the world would never even notice - can make a huge difference in one's enjoyment of the food.
My father, in his deep-seated, nearly subconscious embarrassment of not being able to afford the same kind of home comforts my sister and I enjoyed while living with our mother, saw only the surface of my strife, and compared it to the world's neurotypical example. He had to count every penny of his paycheck to make sure he could feed us both, as he'd had to count every penny his whole life. I'm sure part of him both rejoiced and lamented that his children had grown up never wondering where the next meal was coming from - but a spoiled child, in his eyes, was the worst antithesis.
In the end, after he cooled down, the analytical side of my father's brain won out. He came back to find me, probably 20 minutes later, still standing there in the macaroni aisle, silently clutching my Rugrats boxes, my whole world crashing down around my ears, my reputation and core existence at stake. Perhaps he realized that a "normal" child who was simply "spoiled" or "stubborn" would not have stood there in silent, rigid shock for nearly half an hour, as if the floor had suddenly given way. (As an adult I can look back now and know that I was having an internal meltdown, much more common in girls with ASD than boys, who tend more toward external meltdowns, due to the social pressures experienced by different gender presentations.) Perhaps he reminded himself of the other occasions he had lived with me and come to know my deeper nature. Perhaps he had a moment to look deep down inside himself and remember some of his own food sensitivities growing up.
Whatever internal reckoning he came to, it led him to come down to one knee in the grocery aisle so that he could interact with me at my eye level, and put a hand on my shoulder.
"I don't understand," I choked out in a whisper, staring at the floor. "How you could think - how you could know so little about me - that you could think that I'm, that I'm..." Only the urgency of the injustice could have driven me to speak. In that moment, my personal sense of justice and truth (common in individuals with ASD) trumped my brain's ASD-linked tendency toward becoming nonverbal under stress. "That I'm..." but I couldn't force the rest of the words out.
He looked at the floor, too, and out of the corner of my eye I could see a tear glistening on his cheek. His regret at having been only a partial presence in my childhood was winning out over his pride. "I'm sorry I said you were spoiled." He gently pried one of the Rugrats boxes out of my hand. As I watched, he turned it around, and compared the cooking instructions on the back of the box with those from a regular box. He carefully turned each box, comparing each side, looking at the depiction of the noodles, the ounces of cheese, the nutritional value - every possible area of difference.
"It makes sense," he said finally, his voice soft and steady. "That the character noodles, which are bigger, would taste cheesier than the regular noodles. There would be fewer noodles in the box, but it looks like both boxes have the same amount of cheese."
As I listened to him reason out what was hidden in my brain, I noticed that my vision was coming slowly back into focus. Only then did I realize that for the last 20 minutes, all I had been able to see was black. I had existed wholly and completely inside my own head, to the point that my eyes had literally shut themselves off.
"But," he continued, further subjugating his pride in order to speak his own truth to me. "We cannot afford, for the next 6 months that you and your sister are here, to buy the macaroni that is more expensive than the regular kind. I can get you this one box, so you can have it one more time, but then I need you to be okay with eating the regular mac and cheese like we used to."
This reasoned argument - full of truth and sincere understanding - made perfect sense to me. I acquiesced at once.
I could easily sacrifice my own preference for macaroni for the good of the family, as long as he knew that I wasn't making things up just to get my way - as long as my father knew that I was acting from my core of selflessness, rather than the opposite end of the spectrum.
So often, I read and hear about kids on the Autism spectrum being - mistakenly in many cases, I believe - painted as selfish, spoiled, stubborn, etc.
Behavior that may appear, on a neurotypical surface, to be stubbornness or selfishness, may stem in fact from a very different core. A lot of ASD kids can be very particular about their food, clothing, toys, and whatever else plays a major part in their lives. That exacting particular-ness comes, in my experience, not from a place of simply wanting to get their way or wanting to be in control - but from a multitude of sensitivities and detail-orientation that a neurotypical world just does not see and therefore does not understand. The ASD child who refuses to eat peas might positively detest the way they have a tight outer spherical coating that gives way at the slightest touch to a mushy center - it's not because he just doesn't want to eat his vegetables. The ASD child who screams when one doll is facing a different direction than the way she had placed it is not a control freak - she might simply be incensed that there is a tiny blemish on the doll's right cheek or a few strands of hair that stick out the wrong way on that side, and so is determined to hide those details so that she can put them out of her mind and focus on more important things.
Having ASD also means that one is perhaps less attuned to the subtle, unspoken rules or factors of a given situation - the unspoken rule that one does not scream when her doll is facing the wrong way, for example, or the unspoken threat to his pride and dignity that my father faced when having to tell his young daughter that he could not afford to buy her something she was used to.
Yet children, ASD or no, often don't have the words or the self-awareness to be able to communicate what is going on internally, and so more often than not, the behavior is taken at face value - selfishness, stubbornness - rather than dissected to find a core of sensitivity.
I am learning some of this now from the point of view of a parent, with my own son. Lessons of listening and understanding that all of us can tune into, whether we are raising neurotypical, ASD, or any type of children.