The fear of food is very real to our children.
When my son was about 9 months old, we started feeding him baby puree. He was doing pretty good accepting different flavors, until we introduced the dreaded Stage 3 puree! The mix of textures and potent smells sent my son’s gag reflex into a rage and he never recovered. Anything even associated with mealtime, the high chair, a bowl, a spoon, a bib, would cause immediate panic. He would scream and cry and even gag at the sight of food!
Through very intense Early Intervention therapy, we made progress reintroducing the highchair as a fun place to sit, without the expectation to eat. And eventually we were able to look at food, smell it, and even touch it. This process has taken a very long 3 years and my son still only eats about 5 things.
He has severe oral sensitivity, either due to his Autism or Sensory Processing or a combination of both. We continue to work on exploring food in a comfortable environment, but I’m always hesitant to push him because I totally get it. I was him growing up!
As a kid, food and mealtime was always an issue. I didn’t like a lot of flavors or textures, and I was very dependent on certain brands. Growing up before ASD and SPD were recognized, my parents thought I was just a picky eater, being difficult and unreasonable. They more they tried to get me to eat foods I didn’t want to, the more anxious I felt about food and then the vicious cycle began.
I got knots in my stomach anytime I was called down for dinner. They did their best to accommodate my sensitive palette, but I was always worried about eating or not eating as the case usually was and therefore disappointing them or worrying them. What would I have to eat? Was it cooked the same as last time? Would there be foods that would touch other food? Was it the same brand? Can I just say I wasn’t hungry? Can I entertain them so they won’t notice I’m not eating?
My parents tried everything: explaining I could just spit it out if I didn’t like it, bargaining to just take a bite, hiding packaging so I wouldn’t see the “wrong brand”. My mom always made a special meal just for me, even though it was extra work, even though it would be easier to just force me to eat what everyone else was having, she always respected me and my limitations at the dinner table.
Fear of food lasted well into my adult years. Although I have a much more extensive palette now, I still tend to stay with “safe foods” when I go out. I like making the same few meals at home for my husband and I. And honestly, I really wish that food just wasn’t a thing at all.
Now that my son is experiencing so many similar issues with food, I totally get it! Food is scary and the mouth is the most vulnerable place for a child. Although he can’t express why he likes or doesn’t like different foods, I understand that he does have a reason and that reason is valid. When addressing meal times, I try very hard to make it a positive experience. We use cookie cutters to make bread and pancakes into trains and airplanes. We dip food in sauces. We touch and smell food. Sometimes, it’s even okay to lick the new food. But he never, ever has to eat it.
I’ll revisit our experience with food therapy and the fantastic progress we’ve made in future posts. But today, I just want you to know that if you’re struggling with your child during mealtime, a lot of special needs mommies have been there too. The fear of food is very real to our children. Changing the goal from eating to extinguishing that fear will allow for a positive experience and ultimately, progress.
Previously posted at Hudson Valley Parent Magazine.
*If you have any concerns about your child, please discuss with their pediatrician or contact your local school district or Early Intervention center for an evaluation.*