Despite being a major extrovert and not having many struggles socially, when Wilding gets anxious or overloaded the first thing that gets affected is her eating – or lack thereof, swiftly followed by her sleep. Her sensory preferences with regards to food increase and so does her need for control around food and eating. Overall, refusal increases. Knowing this, we have been doing mealtimes a bit differently lately and it’s been making a huge difference because she is actually eating!
So here’s what we do:
Be flexible with how you think meal times “should” look.
Wilding eats dinner fairly early. If she hasn’t finished her lunch at school (which happens when she’s anxious, exacerbated by noise or other people eating near her) she will eat it in the car on the way home whilst listening to her iPod with headphones on. When she’s ready for more food – she will climb onto the kitchen bench, and eat it there with me in the kitchen. While we chat, she eats.
To be honest – I don’t actually care what time “dinner” is, all I care is that she’s eating. So I have learned to relax my own ideals and really just follow her lead. I don’t try and force her to fit a mould of society’s acceptability and instead I prepare myself to approach things from different angles to find what works for my kid.
Some days she eats dinner outside whilst scooting. Some days she prefers to sit down on a towel on the kitchen floor. And if she’s finished her food first on the rare days she eats with others, I don’t mind if she asks to leave the table early and I definitely don’t force her to stay seated.
As far as learning table manners and stuff goes – that is a separate issue, and can be taught at other times, too. Wilding knows feet don’t belong on the table and to use polite language. Meal times don’t have to be in one type of format only.
And this flexible stance on eating is working. In the kitchen on the bench, there’s minimal pressure, being on the bench also reduces the noise from others affecting her and she doesn’t need to watch other people eat or hear them eating – two things which she has minimal tolerance for on tough days.
Eating is a huge sensory activity: there is smell, touch, taste, texture and even sound involved. When a child refuses to eat it’s important to look at the entire picture, not just the food they are being served. I know for Wilding once I did this I was more aware of the possible triggers adding to her food refusal and so once I was able to eliminate those, funny thing – she ate!
Give some control.
When a child is feeling anxious it’s normal that they’ll try and assert control in other situations to compensate. They are feeling out of their depth so they grasp for anchors. During this time, it’s helpful to give the child a say. At dinner time I ask Wilding what plate/bowl she would like, how she would prefer the food to be presented (in a divided plate/separate bowl/in a mug) and how much she would like. She’s way more likely to eat food that she’s had a say in, after all – wouldn’t we all? I know I don’t eat food I don’t like, so it’s unrealistic to expect children too, either – especially autistic ones.
When it comes to introducing new foods, I find it helpful to do it in small steps. I definitely don’t place new food in front of Wilding unannounced and expect her to eat it. I always keep a range of “safe” foods available and accessible to her, which she can choose to eat instead. I might place something new in a learning bowl beside her main food, and encourage her to sniff it, touch it and even look at it. If she tries it and doesn’t like it, I consider it a big win if she will tolerate it being in a bowl near to her. As her tolerance grows, she may even try it again but there’s no pressure.
Finally, a brief note on the Learning Bowl. This is a bowl where new food can be placed into, or it can remain empty but where food that isn’t liked or tolerated can be placed in. The benefit to having a Learning Bowl is that it eliminates the need for the child to fling food they don’t like across the table, and it also slowly and gently encourages tolerance for foods they are still learning about. The new food is kept separate from their safe food, and so it is way more manageable than dumping it all together.
When your child is being picky around food, take a step back and look for the why. Be prepared to do things in a different way than usual.
I think that’s the thing I love about autism the most. Out of the six of us in my direct family – four peeps are autistic. So every day, I am forced to see things from different perspectives. And I love that there are always more than one (or three!) ways of doing things. Embrace your child’s uniqueness, and look a little deeper. You’ll find ways to connect and you’ll get to the bottom of why they aren’t eating, I promise. And they will absolutely love you for it.