Date of Degree

9-2016

Document Type

Dissertation

Degree Name

Ph.D.

Program

Psychology

Advisor

David Chapin

Committee Members

Barbara Katz Rothman

Kristen Gillespie-Lynch

Christina Nicolaidis

Kate Palmer

Subject Categories

Environmental Design | Health Psychology | Human Geography | Interior Architecture | Other Psychology | Psychology

Keywords

autism, coping strategies, food deserts, food environment, foodways, neurodiversity

Abstract

I explored foodways of adults on the autism spectrum in order to understand how they negotiate and navigate their food environments. Foodways are beliefs and practices involved in food production, preparation, distribution and consumption (Counihan 2008). In an effort to hear marginalized voices in autism discourse, I conducted an online survey and interviews in modes chosen by participants to accommodate the communication needs of a wide range of autistic adults. The primary participants were highly educated adults with a formal autism diagnosis (n = 23) and self-diagnosed adults (n = 6). Out of the 29 autistic participants who completed the survey, eight participated in online interviews or in-person interviews. I also conducted a supplementary online survey and interviews with three parents of autistic adults. Participants’ beliefs about needing certain diets to treat or ameliorate autism were related to their conceptions of autism, and they described their food environments as invisible food deserts, where access to food that may benefit health was limited because their autism-related characteristics were not accommodated. The characteristics of the invisible food deserts included limited availability of edible foods due to restricted diets, ‘unsafe’ people who enforce unwanted social interactions or diets, prevalent over-stimulating food places and hours of operation experienced as restricted. Negative experiences of the invisible food deserts were often exacerbated by limited financial resources, difficulty in asking for changes or help, limited mobility due to lack of driving skills and challenges in cooking and growing food. To survive in invisible food deserts, they used various coping strategies, which I categorized as avoiding the source of inputs, blocking inputs, and maintaining distracted focus. Some of the strategies entailed concerns and costs. I discuss implications for a food environment that is friendly to autistic adults and suggestions for future research.

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