When it comes to a child diagnosed with autism you often hear about communication difficulties, perhaps a lack of empathy (which is mostly complete nonsense and a stereotypical viewpoint, but hey ho) and maybe sensory difficulties, such as finding even the most minor sound too loud. But do you know what doesn’t get discussed that much? Food. Good old fashioned meal times. And the hell it so often brings, and here’s why…
I’d like to take you back to when my son was 6 months old and we started the weaning process. I chose baby led weaning as that particular method suited me perfectly. And wow did the kiddo agree! He ate avocado sandwiches, vegetables (and I mean ALL vegetables), rice, pasta, meat, you name it. He ate it. I tried really hard not to be smug over this. I know there are many parents who really struggle with this journey and it can be a really worrying time. Good thing too really, because at just over one year old, it all came crashing down.
Kiddo started refusing a number of foods, and he didn’t go about it quietly. Foods he had once adored (fish fingers, rice, fruit etc) were now capable of sending him into a terrifying frenzy. Even the sight of his once beloved lamb chops, now brought tears to his eyes. And I had absolutely no idea why. I was helpless. So I began looking for advice.
The most common response was “don’t worry, he will eat when he’s hungry”. Fair point I thought. Who doesn’t eat when they’re hungry? Perhaps this was just a fussy phase. So I placed kiddos meals in front of him as I had always done and weathered the storm of high pitch screams, head banging and a torrent of tears. But it didn’t stop. And he didn’t eat.
I watched kiddo intently. There was a panic in his eyes, a desperation. He wanted to tell me something but he couldn’t. My mummy radar was telling me there was a bigger issue at play and eventually I succumbed to my gut feeling and gave him some Rice Krispies, one of his “never fail” foods.
I felt like a complete failure. I’d given in. Why? Why did I do that? Because I knew this wasn’t right. This was more than fussy eating.
As the days moved on I tried again and again and again. Kiddos behaviour in the day was erratic, his sleep was very disturbed (this was during the days when he still slept). Why? Because he was starving. And I knew it. No child of mine was going hungry in this day and age, so I started to feed him foods I thought he might like. It wasn’t until he was eating at a play date a month or so later when I friend of mine said “oh! That’s a nice plate of beige!”. I hadn’t even noticed. I was so relieved he was eating, I didn’t care what he actually ate. I suddenly had a flash back to a page in a weaning book I had read about making food attractive by using colours. And then I made the connection. The foods kiddo was refusing were all brightly coloured. No more array of vegetables. No more red meat. No more salad and hummus. Only plain and beige foods made it onto his plate. I looked it up, and sure enough, up popped the word “autism”.
Over the past two years I have endured a LOT of comments about kiddo’s diet. People offering “advice” on how to get him to try new foods, people putting new foods on his plate without my permission. I’ve even been told “well he will never eat anything new unless you let him go hungry”. I just want to say again now, I don’t believe in making (and that’s what it is if you have a child diagnosed with autism – making) a child go hungry to broaden their diet.
I know many Mums of children with autism who find it horrendously stressful and sometimes even embarrassing, taking their child out for a meal or (the absolute worst) to a birthday party where the Mum in charge has no understanding of the daily food battles you fight. It’s so easy to remove this stress from an Autism family’s daily life. All you need to remember is the following:
1. There are “fussy eaters” and then there are fussy eaters. Children with autism (or sensory processing disorder) are more than “fussy eaters”, they are what I like to call “decisive eaters”. They know what foods feel safe to them, and that’s what they will eat. This is no reflection on anyone’s parenting style, and no failure on anyone’s part. It’s just the way it is. Accept it.
2. A child with autism will not eat, even when they are absolutely starving, unless they are confident the food won’t cause them pain or harm. This is why you see Mums of children with autism cheering their child on when they happily devour a plate of chips. Why? Because they are learning to survive. And the afternoon will no longer be plagued with exhaustion and hunger based meltdowns (hopefully).
3. Yes as parents of course we would like to see our children have a healthier diet. We would also like to see them wake up in the morning with one less thing to dread facing that day. Yes my darling, you can have dry Rice Krispies and a malteser to ease your aching stomach. You can have it ten times over if that’s what you need. Mummy has got your back.
4. Even if it may not seem like it, as parents we are always making the most subtle changes to help our children make a positive relationship with food. Because that’s what it is, a relationship. Let me explain how.
Kiddo has recently taken an interest in carrots, bananas and apples. The love of carrots is related to Bugs Bunny. The other two I’m not quite so sure about. I’m encouraging kiddo to spend as much of the day holding and handling these foods as possible so that he may become comfortable with their texture. This last weekend, after months of him just holding these foods, he took a bite out of an apple. An actual bite!!! He then continued to take bites and spit the apple out all over the floor. Did I scold him? Absolutely not! I praised him! Apple was actually in his mouth! Now whenever we go out he hunts down the fruit in a cafe and demands it. Sometimes he just takes it (that’s always interesting), but I let him have it. Why? Because it is all about a positive relationship with food.
So if you see someone out and about, buying their child whatever they demand, and praising them for outrageous table manners, give it a second before you judge them. Because you have no idea what battles they are fighting.
Thanks for reading,