Thursday, July 30, 2015

The Autism Diet

If he asked for it, I gave it to him! This
loaf of bread was supposed to be
sliced and buttered for a family meal
but Tate wanted it. I did not object. He
ate so few things. I was thrilled to
let him walk away with it. 
Got a picky eater? Is picky an understatement? I feel your pain but there is hope. There was a time when Tate ate only about a dozen things total. It didn’t start out that way. He ate baby foods okay and seemed to be a lot like his siblings were when he was a toddler. He ate a lot of finger foods and ate off my plate. But around age two and a half when the language regression hit us, many other signs of autism appeared. The stimming began with hand flapping. Then the refusal to eat almost everything we offered began. When Tate was around three he would eat so few things I could name them easily. And from the time he was three until he turned six or seven his diet consisted of about one dozen things, with very few exceptions. He ate popcorn, crackers, and chips, french fries, waffles or pancakes, grilled cheese, cheese pizza, cinnamon toast, and a couple of kinds of cereal. He would eat a peanut butter sandwich (with no jelly) and the peanut butter was smooth, not crunchy. He would also eat a McDonalds cheeseburger if it were plain. No other cheeseburger would do and he knew the difference immediately if we tried to trick him. Once in a while he would eat chicken nuggets but not usually. I made them available to him often hoping he would eat one. I do not know why he occasionally would but I was always beside myself with joy when it happened. I worried a lot about his calorie intake and his nutrition. There was not a vegetable or fruit in his diet. Well, except that he discovered apples about age four or five and I could coax him to eat one of those once a week or so. That happened sort of by accident I think. Tate used to love to get an apple from a bowl of fruit I have sitting on the counter. He would call it a ball and carry it around for hours sometimes. One day he was sitting on the staircase with his “ball” and I saw him examine it closely and take a bite. I watched him take a few more bites. I quietly cried tears of joy. Then I called my relatives and best friends to tell them about the breaking news. And probably if you are reading this blog you totally get why. This was huge. From that day on he would occasionally eat an apple.

Always a favorite, Cheetos
There were days when Tate ate nothing or almost nothing. There were other days when he would only eat crackers, or only eat popcorn. Nothing made me more annoyed than to get advice from others who said I was catering to Tate and he would eat when he was hungry. They thought I should just put food on the table and he would soon figure out I was not going to make him a different meal than the rest of the family. This kind of advice is ludicrous in my opinion. I’m not sure my child with autism even feels hunger the same way I do but I know if he does he can ignore it. Tate would have outlasted me. Once when he was a toddler he went for three days without eating. I was not trying to outlast him or introduce new foods. I had all his favorites available for him. He wouldn’t eat. He often refused food if his throat was sore. He could not tell me his throat was sore. I could only guess, usually because of a raspy voice or increased drooling.

Those who do not understand autism love to offer advice about how to feed a child with autism. Their advice often requires a tough love approach. Trying to wait out a child with autism is not a very effective strategy in my experience. And hearing, “He’ll eat when he is hungry.” only reinforces for me the ignorance of the one speaking. The difference between a picky eater who is typically developing and a child on the spectrum with food aversions is enormous. I believe it would be like comparing someone who needs glasses to someone who is legally blind. One is inconvenienced and one is handicapped.

I am definitely not an expert on food issues, nor have I dealt with them to the degree so many others have. Tate’s diet was never limited to one or two things like some others. I do not have a whole lot of answers about how to get a child to eat anything they do not want to. In the first place, compared to many children with autism Tate’s diet was huge. I know of a toddler with autism who had one food he would eat - mustard flavored pretzels. I was lucky to have a kid who would eat a dozen different things and a few of those could even be changed up slightly. Secondly, just because something worked for us does not mean it will work for the next kid with autism. And thirdly, the things we tried worked sometimes and not others. There did not seem to be a whole lot of rhyme or reason with Tate’s choices or refusals. And he sure couldn’t tell me what he was thinking or feeling.

The things I remember that may have helped the most are probably all things most moms of kids with autism will have already tried. Of course the first I have already mentioned in the examples of the chicken nuggets and the apples. I made things available to Tate, hoping he’d try them one day. I didn’t take the apples away from him even when he was rolling them around or just holding them. He bruised a lot of apples. We wasted a lot of chicken nuggets too. Another was that I pushed him without forcing him to try things. I could sometimes talk him into just licking something and then I made a huge deal out of him “trying” it. A couple of times those licks turned into bites and a new food to add to the list. Some of the biggest successes we had happened at school. Tate had a Paraprofessional he adored and in fourth and fifth grade Tate often tried new foods at school because he wanted to please the teacher he really liked. Having all the peers around him eating something may have played a big factor there too. Tate tried popsicles, cupcakes, watermelon, and lots of other things at school. Some of them he would continue to eat at home after that.

The seeds don't even cause him to flinch these days.
I did occasionally try the tough love approach, although it was not very tough really. I was so tired of McDonalds one day when Tate was about five or six years old. I told him I would take him for a cheeseburger but it was not going to be a McDonalds cheeseburger. Tate protested but I stood firm. We went to Wendy’s. I had tried other times to get Tate to try cheeseburgers from places other than McDonalds and had no luck. This particular day Tate agreed to try the burger. He ate the whole thing. And then he believed me. Other places do make good burgers. Days later he ate a Sonic cheeseburger. For several years then he would eat a plain cheeseburger almost anywhere as long as the bun was not toasted and did not have sesame seeds on it. Lately neither one of those things matter either! The day may be coming when he can tolerate a little ketchup on the burger. Who knows?

Just keep trying folks. If you can even talk your child into touching something new on their tongue you've made progress. Tate's diet at age 13 is not exactly a balanced one but he will try a new food without too much drama. His diet has definitely increased lately. Don’t give up hope for your child. It could happen for you too.

If you enjoyed this post then you might like It's Too Loud In Here or Don't Touch My Skin

1 comment:

  1. Great post, gives me hope. Parker eats only: Pizza toppings, cheese, salami, goldfish, french fries from McDonalds only, Chicken nuggets from McDonalds only, taco meat, strawberries, grapes, sometimes apples, one kind of fruit snack, plain bread, and Doritos.