Salads, Spreadsheets & the Spectrum: The Fight that Has Nothing to Do with Food – Jennifer O’Toole

**Content Warning: Eating Disorders, Self-Harm

Including excerpts from Sisterhood of the Spectrum: An Asperger Chick’s Guide to Life”

Some years ago, psychologist Carol Dweck took a good, hard look at a bunch of very bright fifth-grade boys and girls. Specifically, she observed what happened when these kids were presented with new concepts — confusing information meant to cause them a bit of frustration. How, Dr. Dweck wondered, would they handle the stress?

Among the girls in the study, the higher the IQ, the more likely they were to give up when asked to learn something that was particularly foreign or complex. That’s right: the most intelligent girls didn’t stick around and keep thinking. They didn’t persevere. They quit. Fast. And there’s more bad news. The girls with perfect grades — straight-A’s — reported the most intense feelings of helplessness of any kids in the entire study. On the other hand, boys in the very same group saw the very same difficult material as challenging, even energizing. Instead of giving up, the boys were far more likely to increase their focus and their turn up the effort.

Image courtesy: Sisterhood of the Spectrum – Jennifer O’Toole

When I read about this study, it made me heartsick. Why would that happen? The girls should’ve been the most confident kids in the room. The most resilient. The ones who said, “Let me at it!” At 5th grade testing levels, there is a consistent standard: girls routinely outscore boys in every subject, including math and science (whoever said those weren’t “girl subjects”?!). So the trouble couldn’t be a matter of intelligence or classroom success. The only difference between the boys and girls was how they reacted to difficulty — to the possibility of not having the ready answer, of pleasing everyone, of shining brightly. When the going got tough, the girls got going. As in out the door. Gone. These clever young girls turned on themselves as if they’d been waiting for proof of being not-good enough. In mere minutes, they’d lost all confidence…and walked away in shame.

Now, I’m being honest. The single best motivator for me has always been when I’m told that I can’t do something. “Oh really?” I think. “Just watch me — and watch me do it better than you ever could!” So….I would LOVE to tell you that I’d never fall for such silly mind games — love to say I could never be so easily undone. I’d love to tell you that. But the truth is…I’d be lying if I did.

My best friend from high school once said, “When we were little kids, I knew two things about Jenny Cook. She had red hair. And she was really, really smart.” Those were my only for-sures. My identity, as far as I could count on it. And from the outside looking in, neither bullet-point varied through the years. By the time I was in university, I had a perfect Grade Point Average, would be graduating with honors, and was known on campus as “the redhead” (though I’m pretty sure now that being known by anything but my own name wasn’t really the compliment I saw it to be). Identity in-tact. Or so it seemed. On the inside, I was swirling out of control, totally disconnected from the person I’d always been.

Why? Well, my boyfriend of almost two years — with whom I was absolutely head-over-heels — had pointed out that all of my classes were in the humanities. He was in the sciences and had not done nearly as well at school, despite being every bit as smart. So, he told me, I was obviously outperforming him because my classes were much easier. I was a fraud, an arrogant pretense…as well as a lot of other bad things, he explained. Many times. And because I loved him, I believed him. I just no longer believed in me.

In a nutshell: when something is truly difficult, bright, talented, creative girls often interpret our struggle as proof that we just don’t have what it takes. That whatever smartness, cleverness, and goodness we have (or haven’t) is inborn — unchangeable. Innate. Part of a “you’ve-got-it-or-you-don’t” package. And being on the spectrum adds a whole extra dimension to that concept. By our very nature, we tend to see the world in acute all-or-nothing, I’ve-got-this-or-I’m-an-utter-failure terms anyway. Bright girls, in general, are likely to see themselves as inadequate — and spectrum girls add an extra dose of intensity, anxiety, depression, and self-loathing. As soon life experiences “prove” our shortfalls, our worst fears are realized. The smart (or creative or imaginative) person we thought we knew — well, she’s turned out to be a scam, after all. Turns out — we are fakes. Frauds.

And really. Why keep at what you obviously can’t do well when you can, to some gratification, focus your ultra-fierce attentions on the one person who deserves your scorn for being such a failure? Yourself.


I’m now gonna tell it like it is because certain deadly, dangerous, disfiguring specters haunt girls on the spectrum more than any other population: eating disorders and self injury. It makes sense if you just think about it; genetically, we are prime candidates. We’re socially programmed to judge ourselves harshly. We’re neurologically wired to be rigid and exacting. To be perfectionists with obsessive and depressive tendencies. To have minds that get stuck on something and replay the idea endlessly all day and night. And we don’t like to feel out of control. We are, literally, the textbook illustration of the kind of girl/woman most vulnerable to harming ourselves.

But you know what? All of it is about relief. You don’t get away. And the relief is only temporary. What really happens is this: you get ashamed and secretive and ever-more isolated. Then, finally, when you emerge from the fog — if you emerge — life won’t have magically turned around.

Image courtesy: Sisterhood of the Spectrum – Jennifer O’Toole

Let’s be clear. You deserve love. And understanding. And compassion. You are not a mistake, my friend. You are not some amoral piece of garbage who’d do better to numb out and disappear. You are good at much more than destroying yourself. Do you hear me? Losing yet another pound — hiding one more scar — stuffing down one more cookie — it isn’t a triumph. It doesn’t make you superior to anyone, even though I know that’s how it can feel.

You’re not a monster, and you’re not invisible. You’re just imperfect.

Years ago, I was hospitalized for anorexia, and on some, deeply-troubled level, I was actually proud of the “achievement.” Really. Proud of getting so good at losing weight, at being so skinny — (in reality, so malnourished) — that I had to be admitted to a hospital for a month. And you know what? The day before I went inpatient, I was still getting compliments on my uber-teeny jeans. And, so, I didn’t really want “recovery” — to lose my only coping mechanism. I felt light and numb and admired…until I was admitted and finally discovered that no, I was just wholly sick….and wholly friendless. You see, after a while, you begin to love your addiction.

Binging. Starving. Compulsive exercising. All of it is about trying to escape from your own feelings. And for a while, it may feel like it works.

When we are babies, and we get overwhelemed, we seek the comfort of nursing or of a bottle. That is, we find relief from our big, scary feelings by filling our mouths with sweet, rich tastes. It makes perfect scientific sense, then, that even though we may not realize it consciously, our brains (smart as they are) haven’t forgotten how to switch on the self-soothing mode. Maybe we’re feeling left-out or defective, ashamed or insecure. The feelings get too big and…for many of us, the fix is to fill up on treasure troves of sugar and fat: pizza, ice cream, cookies, cheese, chocolate. For a little while, the chemical relief numbs out the hurt. Hurt? Worry? It’s all shoved deep down beneath layers of chips or donuts. Hidden. Out of sight and out of mind. Until the chemical buzz begins to wear off… and it turns out that the feelings never went away. They’re still here. And worse, now there’s self-loathing and shame to add to the mix. So we punish ourselves… until the hurt gets too big, and the cycle starts again.

For those of us who starve ourselves, the story isn’t much different. We’re still trying to escape overwhelming feelings — of being a fraud, not good enough, unworthy, a failure. Instead of indulging in cover-up chaos, under-eaters (like I was) discover relief – even a sense of power – in artificial control. At one point, I kept a spreadsheet of every calorie, gram of protein, fat, carbohydrate and fiber I ate. Every day. As I got hungrier and hungrier – and then suddenly, somehow….numb (that’d be my brain literally shutting down)…there was a kind of euphoria. Even arrogant achievement. I didn’t feel the hurt. I didn’t feel anything….except…trapped by my own rules. Afraid of dinner dates or parties or anything outside of my rigid routine.

When you starve, you don’t actually get away from anything. What really happens is this: you get ashamed and secretive and ever-more isolated. Then, finally, when you emerge from the fog — if you emerge — life won’t have magically turned around. You’re not a monster, and you’re not invisible. You’re just imperfect. And now, you’ll also find that you are very, very sick.

What I Ask of You:

  1. Do not say “I’m fine,” when you’re not. No matter how alone you feel — no matter how to-blame you believe you are….you aren’t. I’m telling you this from personal experience, my friend. You deserve — you need — real people in your life who aren’t afraid of sadness. Real people — parents, siblings, counselors, teachers — who will come closer when you cry. Who will put a hand softly on your shoulder or wrap you in a hug and say, “No, you’re not. And I’m still not leaving.”
  1. Instead of hurting yourself, try one of these alternatives. Self-harm isn’t about attention-seeking. It’s about control. The reality is that there are a lot more things in life which we can’t control than those we can. You can’t engineer every conversation or job or date or class. But you can be one-hundred percent in charge of how you respond to your triggers.

You are not a done deal. You are malleable. Moldable and changeable. Sure, everyone has certain aptitudes and talents. Not everyone will be Ada Lovelace or Sally Ride or Marie Curie. Which is a good thing. The world needs Emily Dickinsons and Jane Austens and Jane Goodalls, too…..and we need you. So give yourself a little more credit. On those days when you truly can’t say anything nice about yourself — practice. As the expression goes, Mother Teresa didn’t walk around worrying about the size of her thighs or the last thing she’d said — she had stuff to do. So do you. Get going. Being alive is about taking risks.

Sometimes you’ll amaze yourself with unknown talents. Other times, not so much. So what? You just proved you were brave. And THAT’s worth discovering.


About Jennifer O’Toole

For more information on Jennifer’s book Sisterhood of the Spectrum please visit

Jennifer O’Toole is the creator of Asperkids LLC,  author of the internationally-bestselling Asperkids book series (2012-15), host of the biweekly YouTube series and podcast, “Speaking Geek,” and an internationally-acclaimed motivational speaker. She was identified as an Aspie in 2011, just after her daughter and sons.

Jennifer is a graduate of Brown University, and did her masters’ work at Columbia & Queens Universities. Her six titles are ALL Amazon bestsellers, including several #1’s and the ASA’s 2014 Outstanding Literary Work of the Year. Jennifer sits on the Autism Society of America’s Panel of People on the Spectrum, a 2015 nominee for CNN’s Heroes, is recognized as one of the “World’s Top Aspie Mentors,” a regular contributor to Amy Poehler’s Smart Girls at the Party, a Kappa Alpha Theta Leading Woman, Make-A-Wish Inspiring Woman, and is the winner of the Temple Grandin Global Contribution Award. She has advised the President’s Council at the White House, addressed Her Royal Highness the Countess of Wessex in England, and was named one of the 50 Most Influential Women in NC. Jennifer is also an award-winning educator and mom of three (awesome) Asperkids.

Click to visit Jennifer’s profile on Wikipedia.


Autism isn’t just “blue.” It’s a spectrum. Except that nobody’s including the pink. Talk about autism and you’re usually talking about men and boys. Too often, there is no girl talk. No from-the-inside-out women’s perspective. The girls are barely visible. The women are afterthoughts. Too often, I am a token. And my daughter is invisible.

And that’s not good for anyone. The impact of mis- and under-indentification is SERIOUS (read: eating disorders, self-harm, dating violence….big, bad, avoidable stuff).

Frankly, autism needs pink. Maybe some lipstick. Or not. I don’t really care how any particular woman “does” her own version of female, so long as we get to be part of the club. It’s ironic, really. For those of us who spend so much of our lives feeling just outside that magical place of easy friendships and happy Happy Hours, we girls are outside the outsiders, still knocking on a door. Well, you know what? Ginger Rogers once reminded a sassy reporter that she’d done every single dance move Fred Astaire had, only backwards and in heels. Folks, let’s cha cha. Because the next verse of “Autism: the Musical” is ready…and I am ready for some fabulous dancing shoes.
– Jennifer O’Toole