So I have been reading a lot of blog posts about neurotypical parents and their struggles with their autistic child or children at mealtime. If your family has an enjoyable mealtime where everyone is ready to join hands and sing Kumbaya, then this article is not for you. On the other hand, if mealtime at your house is more like hell on earth, and you go to bed at night craving Valium, then read on.
Psychologists and all sorts of pro-family professionals like to extol the virtues of family mealtime. It’s the part of the day when everyone in the family gets together to compare notes and agendas about the day, and check-in as it were. Additionally, as if contending with society’s norms wasn’t enough, you probably have relatives and friends who are quick to remind you of the importance of “3 squares a day,” “eating everything on your plate because there are starving Africans,” “mealtime is synonymous with family time” etc. etc. ad nauseam.
But, how about we look at mealtime from the perspective of an autistic person. I have been on the autism spectrum for over fifty years and I raised a daughter on the autism spectrum so I would like to share some observations. I don’t purport to know what it is like for every autistic person, but I can give some perspective to the neurotypical out there. As the vast majority of autistic children have some type of sensory issue, let’s look at what mealtime may be like from the viewpoint of one with sensory issues.
- Light: Is it bright in your kitchen or dining room at mealtime? Most people don’t eat in the dark unless the power is out, so chances are there is a fair amount of light emanating from light bulbs at dinner as well as sunlight during the day. Does your child act up when in the presence of fluorescent light, bright sunlight or just a well-lit room?
- Noise: Is it quiet like a library at your breakfast or dinner table? Or is there a lot of talking, bustling about, moving of chairs etc.?
- People: Does your child get antsy/agitated when around more than 1 person at a time? Does your child prefer a lot of alone time? How does/he she react with a group of people around a table?
- Textures/Taste: Does your child only like certain textures of food? Certain colors of food? If there is more than one item on the plate, does he get agitated if the food touches or starts running together? Does unfamiliar food send your child into a meltdown?
- Smell: Does your child have a heightened sense of smell? Do certain smells agitate him? How about a variety of smells all at once?
Is it any wonder your child does not do well at mealtime or refuses to eat?
When I raised my daughter, she and I were the only ones in the home and as I mentioned, we both are on the autism spectrum. The family meal concept (breakfast, lunch, dinner) went out the window early. You probably noticed your autistic child only likes a few foods (little sarcasm there). We on the autism spectrum will eat the same foods most of the time, if you let us, until we either get tired of the food (which can take a VERY long time) or we have something else put in front of us that looks more interesting. I have eaten peanut butter sandwiches for lunch (or sometimes for dinner) pretty much every day for the last fifty years. Really. My daughter and I when she was growing up, rarely liked the same foods at the same time or wanted to eat at the same time of the day. I could have forced us to have mealtime, but it seemed counterproductive. Yes, we did eat a meal together on occasion outside of the home at a restaurant or at a relative or friend’s house. I do advocate having a “group meal” once in a while to teach your child about the neurotypical world, but forcing your autistic child into 2 or 3 family meals around a table per day is going to put you into an early grave. By the way, my daughter and I are healthy adults (from a nutritional standpoint—anxiety issues are another story).
Do yourself and your nervous system, not to mention the poor overloaded nervous system of your child on the autism spectrum, a favor, and try to give your child small amounts of no more than 1 or 2 foods at a time. Combine that with an eating environment that is one to one and surrounded by low light, low sound and low disruption. Inotherwords, have eating take place in an environment as soothing as possible. Experiment and see what different foods your child may like. Above all, don’t give up. Just because your child does not like the food now, doesn’t mean he won’t want to try it 3 months from now or a year from now.
Do NOT battle with your child over eating. Battling over food turns eating into an anxiety-producing activity which can lead to life-long eating problems and even eating disorders. Introduce new foods slowly and don’t expect miracles overnight. Eventually, try giving foods from different food groups at intervals during the entire waking day to maintain nutrition. Resist the temptation to believe “my child only likes …” and repeatedly just give him that food. You are not doing him any favors.