Kids generally can be fussy eaters and that’s ok because, we know, the more they try something the more they’ll get to like it. Eventually a typical child will taste and eat a variety of foods because their curiosity over rules fussiness and equally, our bribery skills work really well.
But what happens when your child simply refuses to try anything?
Well, hello Autism!
I hear you, “I’m sure my child is just being stubborn?”
“I’m sure my child kicks off at meal time because they know it annoys me?”
Yes, that’s exactly what I used to think!
But that’s not the case.
Many children with Autism have associated sensory processing issues.
To you and I, food is a must, food is mostly delicious (So long as I haven’t cooked it!) and we know, we need food to stay alive.
But for a child with autism, food can be torture and can easily overload a child senses. The smell, the look, the taste, the texture, even the sound, either while it’s being cooked or the sound it makes it makes when chewed can be overwhelming and just too much to bear.
We happily dish up a combination of foods, plonk them on a single plate and think nothing of it! Well in my house you would be hung, drawn and quartered – Your crime? Cross contamination!
And then there’s the social element of meal time!
We all sit at the table, practically touching each other, and have idle chit- chat! Autism hell!
For many children with autism it’s not only about how food makes them feel but also about how other people make them feel.
To watch others eating the food they hate makes them feel physically sick, having to listen to every crunch, chew and suck is torture.
They then have to deal with all those eyes in close proximity watching them, and pressurising them to eat.
Throughout mealtimes they are expected to sit still on a chair with their legs dangling in space, leaving them with no concept of where their body is. They have to eat politely, use cutlery correctly and remember their manners.
Equally, there is always that expectation hanging over them that ‘they MUST eat their dinner or they’re in trouble!’
Sounds like a breeze ah?
Anxiety rises, demands are intense, expectations are high, sensory overload takes hold, stress kicks in and they need to escape!
The Freeze, Fight or flight mode takes over.
So it’s not surprising that they refuse to eat their dinner or try new foods!
And that’s why kids with autism eat chicken nuggets!
Chicken nuggets are safe! A chicken nugget is plain and it’s predictable! There’s no variation, a chicken nugget is a chicken nugget!
Beige foods are great! Name me a beige food that is full of flavour? Nope you can’t! There isn’t one!
Chicken nuggets- plain
Pasta – plain
Bread – plain
Cracker – plain
Waffle – plain
Chips – plain
Cheese – plain
And MacDonalds! Well that’s the best place in the world!
Why? Because it’s tasteless, and predictable. It’s guaranteed that you get exactly what you’re expecting every single time!
If they can control one element of meal time, then they will have more resilience to cope with the rest of the mealtime anxieties.
As a young child Aiden had this love of chicken nuggets and still is obsessed with McDonald’s! However, he has progressed slightly! His go to now is pizza! I know, not much of a progression, but we celebrate the small steps! We have even moved to bbq sauce rather than tomato! (Normally a whole bottle at a time!) 🤣
Aiden would eat pizza for breakfast, lunch and dinner if he could!
Aiden has a restrictive diet but we struggle with his weight due to his obsession with junk food. However, I know many parents are the opposite and worry the nutritional value their children receive due the limited food groups.
Let me reassure you. Most children, with or without autism, eat enough from each food group to keep them going, even if they only eat plain mostly beige food.
It’s worth keeping a food diary of what they actually eat, you’ll be surprised how much they eat compared to how much they need.
Chewable vitamins, mixed in with a packet of Haribo’s or vitamin drops mixed in with tomato sauce works well too.
Think back to your student days! It’s amazing how long you can survive on pot noodles and alcohol!
My advice is to back off, relax and take away all pressures around mealtimes.
Work on one issue at a time.
Decide what the most important part of mealtime is to you and work on this one first.
Is it a battle worth fighting?
If they eat the same food for lunch day in, day out, does it actually matter?
If you feel sitting at a table is the most important, so you can go out to eat in public, then go this this one.
Firstly, give them food you know they’ll like. Write a weekly menu so they know in advance what the food is. Involve them, let them choose.
Rearrange the table so they are far enough away from everyone to feel comfortable.
Get a block for their feet, so they feel grounded.
Don’t put them in the lime light, talk amongst yourselves, if they want to join in the conversation, they will.
Give them a timer so they know there’s an end.
If they don’t eat, don’t punish them, instead, thank them for joining you at the table.
Take one step at a time. It can take years for a child to even touch a food, let alone eat it.
Once they realise the pressure has been taken off, they will relax.
Make more opportunities to sit at the table so there’s more time to practice.
Don’t let your anxiety become your child’s.
The 3 P’s are crucial for success.
Patience, Persistence and a Peaceful environment.
Disclaimer: If your child is underweight or you are concerned, seek medical advice but take your food diary with you because that’s the first thing they’ll tell you to do.