Special Needs Living: Food & Nutrition

Suzanne Murray
6
fork and spoon

flickr: Photo by Horia Varian

Today's guest blogger is aurorabunny, mom to 3-year old Brody, who has autism.

Every week, aurorabunny shares the ongoing struggles and triumphs that often come with parenting a child with special needs. Today, she talks about the challenges she faced in trying to get Brody to eat healthfully -- and the techniques that worked for her.

If I had to pick one problem that parents of children with special needs seem to have in common, it would be food and eating issues. No matter the disability, almost all of our children struggle with food or eating in one way or another -- and it often goes far beyond the normal "picky eater" stage that most children go through.

I've met parents whose special needs child will eat only items that are white; some who will eat only items that are pureed; others who say that their child eats practically nothing at all; and I've heard about all kinds of things in between.

The food battles that we experience with our kids are usually caused by sensory issues (aversions to particular textures, smells, or tastes) or physical issues (food allergies, reflux) -- and are often a combination of both. Figuring out the causes behind a child's picky eating is usually the most important step toward successfully introducing new foods that will actually end up in little tummies -- instead of on the floor.

I'm ashamed to admit this, but not too long after my son Brody began eating solid foods, he was mainly subsisting on a diet of pureed baby food fruits and Chef Boyardee macaroni & cheese. It wasn't that we didn't want to feed him healthy foods, he just wouldn't eat them.

Not only would he not eat them, but even the sight of a food that was "out of his routine" was enough to send Brody into an hour long meltdown. I worried about his health and the comments made by others -- even professionals we worked with, who should have known better, were discouraging.They'd say things like:

"Send him to my house for a week, I promise he'll be eating his vegetables when he comes back!" 

"Make him eat what you want him to. When he gets hungry enough, he'll eat it."

After a while of repeatedly hearing that last comment, I felt like exploding. Imagine my relief when we started working on eating with a new occupational therapist whose first words of advice for me were as follows:

"You know how people tell you that when he gets hungry enough he'll eat? That's crap, throw it out the window. These kids will starve themselves before they'll eat something that they don't want to eat."

It was so nice to hear after months of insinuations from others that Brody's eating issues were my fault. Learning that they weren't yanked me out of guilt and helped me move forward so that I could learn how to help my son become a better eater.

I threw myself into learning about food and nutrition. With the help of our new OT, we found the book Just Take a Bite by Lori Ernsperger, and started trying new ways to introduce foods. We began helping Brody to play with foods, encouraging him to touch and smell new foods, which was the complete opposite of the "Eat your food or you're in trouble!" approach we had been trying previously.

Instead of becoming angry when food was thrown on the floor, we celebrated the fact that Brody touched it to his lips or smelled it before he hurled it across the room. I also began recognizing food allergy symptoms in Brody after learning more about them, and removed all dairy products from his diet along with a few other foods that I learned were irritating his acid reflux. We saw amazing changes after this, not only physically (removal of dairy from Brody's diet rid him of some major digestive problems and eczema) but in Brody's eating habits. 

Today at three-and-a-half years old, Brody will try almost any food. I think that's pretty impressive for a child with severe autism. He still has a few foods that just don't sit well with him in regards to his sensory issues (anything with a "peanut butter" texture), and I respect that. 

We've got the "Take one bite" rule down to a science now and to ensure that it continues working we both always hold up our ends of the bargain. Brody is quick to take at least one bite of all new foods, and if he genuinely doesn't like them, I don't push him to eat more. 

Meal times have turned into a happy time for us. Two years ago, I never thought I'd see the day when we could sit down as a family and all eat the same food for dinner. Thankfully that now happens on a regular basis.

With lots of hard work, informative educational tools, and a great support system of family and therapists, I no longer have to count on one hand the number of foods that my child will eat.

Food battles with our children with special needs are never easy and I don't believe there is any one diet, tip, or trick that will work for all children with disabilities. But with a lot of hard work, knowledge, and persistence it is possible to find the tricks that work for your child and the results can be a lifelong love affair with a variety of healthy and nutritious foods.

It's so worth it!

Do you have a picky eater? What kinds of strategies have helped you get him to eat better?

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