Woman and man Copyright of Elainea Emmott Photography

We know 99% of people have heard of autism but only 16% of autistic people feel the public understand them.

During World Autism Awareness Week 2020, we are interviewing autistic people and their families about how they experience feeling intense anxiety in social situations, needing extra time to process information and instructions, communication difficulties, anxiety around unexpected change or sensory sensitivities with sound smell, light, taste and touch – the five biggest things autistic people and their families told our charity they most wanted the public to know about autism.

Our charity also asked autistic people, their families and carers to tell us how they are responding to the coronavirus (Covid-19) outbreak during this difficult and unprecedented time. For the National Autistic Society’s latest guidance and advise about autism and coronavirus (Covid-19), visit our dedicated resources webpages.

Meet Wesley Emmott, an autistic writer who loves to cook and his mum Elainea Emmott, food photographer, and regular on Channel 4 cookery competition Crazy Delicious, judged by Heston Blumenthal.

Wesley and Elainea tell us about how they set up their supper club, Our Seat, Our Table, to reduce social isolation in their local community…

Elainea, why did you seek an autism diagnosis for Wesley?

I could see Wesley needed extra support and I really wanted him to enjoy school and get the most out of it because he was such a bright boy. I knew he wasn’t being supported and it was becoming quite a stressful situation as, at the time, Wesley couldn’t explain to me why he found school so stressful.

Wesley, looking back, what did you find stressful about the classroom environment?

People were always talking over the teacher, which would make it difficult to concentrate.

How did you start cooking together?

Elainea: Wesley and I have always cooked together and he is the baker in the house, but I took it more seriously just before he moved away to university because I wanted to make sure he was cooking well. It was a way for us to communicate through food.

Wesley: I used to cook a lot of pasta, but before I went to uni I really kicked it up a notch and started being more adventurous with my cooking. I sometimes cook for my university flatmates.I don’t believe in wasting food, so I often share what I make, like lemon cake with poppy seeds. My flatmates were quite amazed by it as some of them hadn’t cooked lots before or tried their hand at more advanced dishes, but I think it’s something fun to do.

Elainea, talk us through your time on Crazy Delicious

Crazy Delicious is a cookery competition judged by chefs Heston Blumenthal, Carla Hall and Niklas Ekstedt. The producers scouted me from my food Instagram and then sent me a message. I called them and realised it was real! They asked me to audition. Sitting next to other people in the audition process, I realised the other candidates had three or four months to prepare their dishes whereas mine were thought up the night before. I made sweet potato ice-cream and chocolate and mackerel dumplings. It was an interesting taste — I would never have thought to combine those two things and it was a scary risk, but I don’t believe you go in front of someone like Heston Blumenthal and serve avocado on toast!

Tell us about your supper club, Our Seat, Our Table, and the impact it’s having on your community…

Elainea: When I moved to London, I was a fashion designer. I had a pattern cutting table made out of old oak railway sleepers, which is where Wesley and I are sitting during this interview. When Wesley was growing up, we were quite isolated and people never offered to come round. And so, really happily, we got on with our own stuff. After Crazy Delicious, I wanted people to have a seat at our table to talk about anything, like autism or music or mental health, whilst having a great meal, or to host people to speak from their own experiences. I wanted it to feel inspiring. I’m one of the original members of Women’s March London and as a photographer and activist I have the privilege of meeting amazing people. I learned one person can set up a small movement that has a massive impact, but listening to people speak, I feel there is a tendency to think ‘this is very inspiring, but what can I do?’ So, I wanted to create the supper club for people with big dreams or people who don’t know what their dreams are — a place for people to be inspired to be themselves and not feel pressured.

"The supper club has certainly given me different ways to contribute socially and emotionally and made me feel more confident, not only through cooking but opening up conversations through food."

Wesley, what is feeling intense anxiety in social situations like for you as an autistic person?

Wesley: Socialising can feel tense, like speaking is a gamble. Even if I say something that does contribute to a conversation, I’m worried I might say it in a way people won’t understand, which makes me want to shut up and not say anything else, or sit quietly. The supper club has certainly given me different ways to contribute socially and emotionally and made me feel more confident, not only through cooking but opening up conversations through food.

Elainea: Wesley and I were cooking 14 dishes yesterday for two clients and cooking so much at once can feel incredibly stressful. I gave Wesley the recipe for vegetable biryani because we were running out of time, and Wesley just took over even though neither of us had cooked a biryani before. I know I can trust him to think about taste, planning and presentation as we work together so well in the kitchen. Wesley has also worked in one of the oldest bakeries in Soho and we both have lots of experience prepping and serving meals for local homeless charities. There was a time when he would not have been so confident to work in teams, which can be stressful, and put the work in to produce amazing results. I am very proud of him.

What advice would you give to an autistic person who would like to start cooking, but might not know where to start?

Wesley: I’d start with recipes in a cookbook to help you find direction you might be missing, and when you’re more comfortable, start adapting them, such as cooking with different herbs. Sometimes I add white chocolate to ice-cream. As it’s so sweet, I had to learn to account for the sugar content of the white chocolate to get the right balance of flavours. I learned to half the sugar content in the ice-cream base. This is only something you can learn through practice, so don’t be afraid to experiment or feel like you need to get things perfect the first time.

Elainea: Start with what you love and think about why you love a particular food. Wesley, for example, has loved Walkers prawn cocktail crisps and slices of cucumber since he was a child. You might not be able to articulate why you love these flavours, but it might be something soft paired with something crunchy and tangy. Try to incorporate that combination when cooking a new meal or using flavours in a different way. The wonderful thing about Crazy Delicious was the freedom to go wild, for example I had liquorice in the cupboard and paired it with pasta and aubergine and tomato sauce as a reinvention of a vegetarian spaghetti bolognese. This might also be a good tip for people who might not be able to get hold of the exact food they like due to the impact of coronavirus. Be inventive with what you have. Wesley is off the chart in an intelligent and creative way and will always come up with a different perspective. That, too, is the wonderful thing about food. If you go to your cupboard, shut your eyes and reach for two things, you will make something totally unique, because no other people will have those two ingredients at the same time - what can you make with them? If an autistic person experiences heightened visual or taste senses, I feel they will make brilliant chefs, because chefs are hypersensitive to taste. It’s about someone believing in your talents you perhaps don’t see in yourself. As a creative, this is very important to me, and if we can inspire others to have a go then we have done a good day’s work.

How can society change to support autistic people in the future?

Wesley: I think the most important thing society can do is be understanding. I know this can be difficult, as I sometimes find understanding other people difficult too, but it’s important as every autistic person is different. I find myself isolated a lot, especially during a period when everyone has to self-isolate, as it’s just a more extreme version of what I already do. I do enjoy time to myself, but it’s not something anyone can withstand for too long.

Wesley, what’s next for you?

I’m currently training as a journalist and writing is my passion, especially in the horror genre. I write all the time. After uni, I’d love to get a job in journalism or research and work with writers on TV and film or current affairs. I’m also redrafting my book as I would love it to be published. I also really enjoy cooking and I’m currently on a barista training course.

Elainea, what are your upcoming projects?

Crazy Delicious will be aired in May 2020 worldwide on Netflix – it had a great response when shown on Channel 4 in March. I’m writing and photographing a cookbook, alongside finishing my qualification at Leiths School of Food and Wine. I would love to work with brands and write a food column showing how to cook from scarcity, not being wasteful and producing amazing Michelin quality food from a very small kitchen. I want to spend more time with Wesley cooking and travelling, perhaps doing a TV show, meeting and inspiring other families to cook.

How has your family been impacted by increased social isolation during the coronavirus (Covid-19) outbreak?

Elainea: Our supper club, Our Seat Our Table, started in March, so Wesley and I are trying to find out how to do a virtual supper club as the feedback has been so good. People really liked the food and the conversations are real with great representation and diversity around the table. Wesley and I are now making a makeshift garden in our little space, he bought a fork and spade today, and the spring onions have just started rooting in a jar too. We will be documenting our progress and hope it will inspire others. We decided to do this after experiencing very long queues around the block for green leafy vegetables at our local Farmers Market during the coronovirus lockdown. It occurred to me that if people could grow their own food, it would free them up to be creative in their own space and eat well. At the moment, we are all going through unprecedented change and many people are experiencing issues related to loneliness and mental health. The nation is currently learning life lessons, not only about the planet, but about each other and our relationship with people, families and strangers. I hope this attitude of coming together to support those who may need our help and understanding can continue, not just during the periods of isolation, but for the months and years beyond. It makes the world a more interesting place when you can share what you love with others.

Elainea and Wesley have started writing up their recipes, here is one for sweetcorn curry called Love your Grains.

Elainea appeared on Channel 4's Crazy Delicious, episode two, on 28 January this year (2020) and can be seen on Channel 4 on-demand.

Handy tips to help you support autistic people

With the help of thousands of autistic people and their families, we have created some handy tips for the public to follow.

Read the tips here