Autism and My Sensory War on Peas

Sensory War on Peas

Let me tell you Autism can wreaks havoc on your senses. These sensory issues can manifest in lots of ways.

If you’ve experienced similar sensory nightmares, you’ll be able to relate, AND I would love to hear your stories! If not, this articule is for you! I have broken down my experience with my least favorite stimulus so you can see WHY I react so strongly. Then I share a real life story of how I made a mess by trying hide this sensory problem while acting “normal”!!

A Sensory Atomic Bomb

So, let’s talk peas. Some people love them, others not so much. Me, I despise the little beasts. I get it. Peas are nutritious. They are good for you. In my mind though, there’s no better example of how something so tiny and “good for you” can attack your senses. The sight or smell of peas is enough to cause me to enter into a tailspin.

Why the panic? Because peas are the atomic bomb of foods. No, I am not overstating that.

They Don’t Make Sense

The size of the pea (tiny) and the sensory experience of the pea (enormous) are contradictory. My senses prefer that everything be consistent and complementary.

They’re Ugly

Peas are an ugly and unappetizing shade of green. I am very sensitive to colors, and this color makes me want to turn away.

They Taste Nasty

I don’t care what anyone says, there is nothing good about the taste of peas. Nothing. I even tried babyfood peas when my kids were little thinking if I could get around the other issues of peas they might taste good. Nope. Disgusting. Also, the inside and the outside taste different. Ugh!

Should you lick your lips, guess what? Another taste. HOW is that even possible? This taste is sort of a combo of the other tastes. The taste of the outside. The taste of the inside. Blech!!

They’re Smelly and Confusing – Yes, Confusing!

You have smelled peas, right? They smell awful. But that’s not all – the smell and the taste don’t match.

Ponder it for a minute.

If our sense of smell and taste are connected, how can a food have a smell and a taste that don’t go together? The pea is the only food I have ever eaten such that the smell and the taste don’t match. This conflict causes sensory confusion my brain tries desperately to resolve.

They Have Two Textures

Let’s talk about the textures you experience once the peas are in your mouth. (I say “your” because I am trying not to envision them in MY mouth!) There are two textures to the pea that are as unsettling as the taste/smell mismatch. The outside is a little shell. But when you bite down, foul squishy stuff with an entirely new taste (that also doesn’t match the smell!) jumps out. EEEwww….

“The Bombs Bursting in [There]”

I couldn’t resist a little play on words from our national anthem!

But there is more! Keep in mind that when you eat peas, more than one goes in your mouth at once. A bite thus comes to represent a whole lot of atomic explosions all happening at once. These eruptions impact the floor and roof of your mouth, the insides of your cheeks, and your tongue.

Imagine, if you will, bubble wrap. When someone crushes bubble wrap, think of all the little explosions…pop, pop, pop, pop…. This is exactly what is quietly, but violently happening when you chew peas.

Down the Hatch – Not!

If smelling, tasting and chewing are bad, swallowing is worse! I can’t swallow peas – not even a lone pea. Rather, I used to gag and choke and spit them out. So, why go through all that? Even IF I somehow absorbed some nutrients while trying to chew peas, it wouldn’t be worth it.

I’ve Got To Get Rid of Them!!!

As a child I developed a variety of strategies for not eating peas:

  • Putting them under the edge my plate and leaving. This strategy only worked until the clearing of the table by which time I made sure I was long gone!
  • Spitting them out in a napkin and going to the bathroom to flush them down the toilet. Because it was hard to hold enough peas in my mouth, I was always busted on the second or third trip. (As if everyone at the table didn’t know I only went the bathroom during dinner on pea night!)
  • Offering to do the dishes and putting my peas down the garbage disposal while no one was looking. This last strategy came as I got older and was the most successful!
  • Refusing to eat them. This strategy came much, much later, as you will see below!!

Okay, so none of these tactics were impressive, but they were the only escape routes I could find!


Minding Your Peas and Cues

As if that weren’t enough, this sensory experience never takes place in a vacuum. (If I were alone, I would never eat peas. I wouldn’t be anywhere near them.)

How does a sensory issue look when it occurs in a situation with others involved?

I’ve Got This!

So here is my BEST/WORST (depends on how you look at it) pea story:

My then boyfriend’s grandmother made stew for dinner.

Super sweet, right?

As she was dishing up a plate for me, she began to brag about how she had put tons of peas in the stew because she LOVED peas. As the soup poured out of the ladle, a sickening smell hit me.

There were more peas there than I had ever seen in any dish in my life. I remember my heart beating and the sweat beginning to form on my forehead as she smiled and handed me the plate.

She was so proud of her cooking, and there I was wanting to make a good impression. Even still, I knew even as she served me that I had no hope of surviving this plate of stew.

We were eating in the family room, so I found a somewhat sheltered place to sit. I held the plate and ate around the peas. I could still taste them, but only one taste. No way was I going to put them in my mouth!!

In this way, I continued to maintain a normal level of conversation and not draw attention to myself.

So far, so good!!!

No, I Don’t!!

As everyone began to finish, they started carrying their empty plates out to the kitchen to be washed.

I hung back.

I waited until there was a gap in traffic and my future mother-in-law had stepped away from the sink. Then I made my move for the kitchen. As I got there ready to scrape the peas into the trash, she returned.

Almost busted, I gave up the attempt to dispose of the peas and set my plate among the others. The pea-covered plate stood out like a sore thumb. I made a run for it.

Then I heard it. My boyfriend’s grandmother was scolding his five-year-old niece for not eating her peas.


Over her plea that she had eaten her peas, she was told that she would have to go eat the peas on the plate. Yes, the plate that I had so “stealthily” placed in the kitchen. She was also accused of lying.

The Walk of Shame

I can’t describe my feelings as I made the “walk of shame” out to the kitchen to admit that those were my peas and not hers. Or how I felt as I insisted in front of this beautiful five-year-old that there was no way I was going to eat the peas.

I could feel the eyes of all adults on me as I refused to do what she’d been told was the right thing to do.

Why Didn’t I Just Say, “No Thank You”?

I Needed To Follow the Rules – Even at My Own Expense

As a child, trying to learn the rules of society was insanely difficult. Just when I would think I understood how to behave, or what to say, I would do or say something that caused the world to stop.

Typically I walked away from these events devastated, humiliated, and utterly confused. To this day, I look back on some of those moments and have NO IDEA what I did or said that caused even a tiny bump in the road, let alone a 20 car pile-up.

As a young, not-yet-diagnosed woman, I was deperately trying to follow the rules as I understood them. I went to extreme and failed efforts to avoid violating the “clear your plate,” “do not waste,” and “be polite and appreciate what you are given” rules. I hadn’t yet learned about boundaries or safe people. (Check out my post, “My GREATEST Struggle as an Autist: Identifying Safe People.”)

I did this even knowing that there was no way I could eat those peas. I feared confrontation, embarrassment, and hurting someone else’s feelings. As I sat with that plate full of peas, I felt terrified. When I had to go out to the kitchen and fess up to my behavior, I felt humiliated. I felt like a failure.

Over a plate of peas.

Can’t Vs. Won’t

Back then, there was no concept of “can’t” eat the peas, only a belief that I wouldn’t eat them. But that is the point, I could not eat them.

So I went to, what to me as a child seemed like, extraordinary efforts to get rid of them. It was not my normal behavior to try to sneak an lie. I saved that behavior for when I was desperate and in the case of peas, I was!

If there was anyway I could eat peas, I would. I don’t like broccoli at ALL, but I can eat it. Macaroni and cheese from a box? Don’t like it, can eat it.

Fish? Might as well be a form of pea. Not gonna do it, because I CAN’T.

Even today as I hear parents struggle to make the can’t/won’t distinction, it seems so easy to me. Allow your kiddos a few “can’t” items without question and move on. I get it. It is hard to understand someone else’s can’t if you can, but that does not make it less important or valid.

I Wanted To “Fit In”

Even as I tried and tried to look “normal” and not call attention to myself, I wondered how everyone around me could just sit and eat these peas. I felt the feeling that I didn’t fit in all too often, and this instance was no exception. Like many girls and women with autism, I am usually an expert chameleon, but those skills were not enough to overcome my extreme sensory response to peas. Know why? Because this was a “can’t” not a “won’t”. (I wrote about this phenomenon in my post, “Dear Women with Autism, Be Chameleons No More! Let’s Get to Know YOU!”)

The Stakes

Here is why it matters: The stakes were/are so very high.

If I guessed right, I won! If I guessed wrong, I lost! Losing came with the consequence of humiliation with no source of explanation, comfort, or healing forthcoming.

I remember as a child, my reaction to these events was even more disabling. The fear I would feel in a situation I knew I couldn’t control and didn’t understand was overwhelming.

As a child I could never understand why no one would help me. As an adult, I am sure that none of the people around me had ANY IDEA what I was experiencing.

But here is the thing: There is nothing here worth someone’s self-esteem. Nothing. There is no battle over peas or other small things that should trigger this level of fear in one of the participants. The stakes should not be so high.

My fear, my willingness to try to hide the pea problem stemmed from a lack of confidence. It stemmed from the inability to set a boundary and stand up for myself even though others would not have understood.

All of that behavior that we did not know how to interpret back then, we know how to interpret now. I share my experience with peas to illustrate just how crazy complex sensory issues and overstimulation can be.

Don’t believe me? Go eat a pea (or a plateful!) and really focus on the experience. Ask yourself whether the experience can really be broken down into all of the facets presented here. I think this experiment will prove the point.

A Sense of Peas

These sensory wars are real, and they are so hard to fight. If you are an autist, what wars have you had to fight? If you are a caregiver of an autist, I hope this illustration makes clarifies just how real the battle is. Wanting to end meltdowns? Stop fighting these wars. (I wrote a post on meltdowns, “Are the Meltdowns of Someone Who Has Autism Really Abnormal?”)

I am happy to report that I did not have to eat many more peas before overcoming this problem. I still had a lot of work to do on my boundaries, but, learning to politely decline when I “couldn’t” was a huge step for me.

Giving my kids permission to do so as well was great for them and a great big healing step for me!

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  1. Marie July 19, 2018 at 2:56 am

    I was smiling while reading your text, but at the same time, I felt horrified. I have these sensory issues too. I hate peas too, it’s war since childhood, they have any possible flaws. Fortunately, my mum never pushed me to eat something I didn’t like. I already refused to eat duck at a wedding. I would have eaten nothing, but the waiter kept harassing me, I had to eat something, according to him. He just put the spotlight on me, everyone looked at me, telling me how good tasted the duck. I just couldn’t. Lately, I was at friend’s house, they made burritos, but stuffed with loads of black beans and corn… can’t stand them (not my friends, I mean the beans and corn). I’ve tried my best, but it made me gag… So, I’ve tried subtly to give my burrito to my hubby, He ate it, just for me (if it’s not love, I wonder what it is…). It’s funny when you talk about it after… But when it happens, it is a nightmare, but no one understands, because it is just food to them. Food isn’t supposed to be threatening, but it is for some of us. So, thanks for your pea story. I feel less alone in my weird world.

  2. Michelld August 26, 2018 at 12:36 am

    This makes me wonder. All my life there have been things that just make me gag to eat or contemplate eating. Peanut butter. I’ve never once eaten it in my life. The smell makes me feel sick. So I’ve never had it. Things that most people say taste/smell amazing and delicious are just yuck to me. I always felt like my brain was wired wrong about some foods. Now I’m going to go read more of your blog to learn more!

  3. Tara October 6, 2018 at 3:23 am

    This article is me. And Brussels sprouts? I’d rather starve.

  4. Jenny October 10, 2018 at 5:41 am

    My son just can’t do peas or beans we’ve learned to trust him when he says he can’t eat something. He has a way of explaining his can’t & won’t when it comes to food refusal. Won’t is summed up as “my tummy wants to but my brain doesn’t” this is how he explains the fear of trying something new which we work with slowly to make the good familiar & less scary. Can’t is summed up as “my brain & tummy don’t want to” this tells me that there’s zero chance of him eating something so it doesn’t go on his plate & he’s no required to engage with it. He’s 6 & it’s been hard work to get this far & get his other caregivers to accept his food decisions

  5. Sal October 10, 2018 at 1:51 pm

    Thanks very much for breaking down a sensory issue. As a carer for a daughter with undiagnosed asd this helps a lot. I’d love to hear from you about what it is like as an autist esp if getting a diagnosis helped. My daughter can’t go there. But I feel if she did she would understand herself a lot better and cope better therefore. She’s 33. Also nice to know you’re a mum. Did this help?

  6. gigi October 11, 2018 at 10:22 am

    Thank you for this article. I smiled while I was reading but also irritated by the peas 🙂 My arch nemesis is walnut (and maybe pecan, I have’nt tried it yet.) Walnut’s taste (that oily somewhat bitter taste. Its texture and even its smell.) And apparently people looove walnut and put it in almost everything (in my country at least). Yeah health benefits blah blah no thanks. If I encounter with it, I just spit it. Yes I spit it. Even the thought of it makes me crazy (right now for example).

  7. Melissa Mason November 13, 2018 at 3:09 pm

    I have hated peas my whole life. They smell awful and i hate the texture. My future mother in law served peas as side dish when I first started dateing my husband. I left them on my plate and of course she noticed. Still teases me about not liking them twenty years later.

  8. Sean November 30, 2018 at 5:21 pm

    One of my aunts loves to tell this story of feeding me when I was less than a year old. We had veggies and chicken. I spoke to my aunt, who looked to my sister to tell her what I was saying. I needed salt on my pieces of chicken. Which she dutifully performed. I continued to make gestures and tell her that there was more. My aunt was getting very frustrated when my sister spoke up and told her that I needed her to turn the pieces over and salt the other side. I didn’t “need” all that salt, I just needed the sides to be balanced. Once she turned over each piece and salted it, everything was alright.

  9. Aurora January 20, 2019 at 7:46 pm

    My can’ts include macarroni and cheese, which turned out to be a severe allergy. My family didn’t understand, and I couldn’t explain (selective mutism/expressive language disability into my twenties.) Even today the smell will put me into full meltdown/shutdown even though noone expects me to eat it anymore. People still often cook it around me though (camping or visiting other homes) and act as if my response is exagerated. It isn’t. Mushrooms, hamburgers, ground beef, and sausages all cause severe sensory distress as well – makes socializing even more impossible for me. Didn’t get diagnosed until 4 years ago at nearly 40.

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