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Expanding Your Child’s Eating Horizons

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by Bobbi Sheahan and Kathy DeOrnellas, PhD
Autism Asperger’s Digest
| July/August 2012

If you get a group of autism parents together, it won’t take long for the conversation to turn to food. In addition to the fact that spectrum kids typically have narrow food preferences, many families also have special diets that eliminate categories of foods, such as gluten or casein, or their children may have food allergies or sensitivities. How can you feed your child a varied, healthy diet in the face of these challenges

It’s important to remember that spectrum kids aren’t trying to pick a fight with food—or us—even though it may feel that way. Many food issues arise from sensory sensitivities or anxiety and the desire for familiarity and control. To a child with sensory issues, trying a new food can feel like leaping from a high ledge.
While each family’s situation is a little bit different, we all share the same dilemma: how are we going to get spectrum kids to eat a healthy diet consisting of more than a handful of foods? We’ll share a few things that have worked for some common challenges.

Colors, Textures, and Shapes—Oh My!
The texture and appearance of food are at least as important to your child as the taste. Dr. DeOrnellas has worked with children who would eat only yellow things (e.g., corn, bananas) or white things (e.g., mashed potatoes, bread, cauliflower). Lynette Louise, a mom in California, has raised four kids on the autism spectrum, and all of them had significant issues with food. One of her sons would eat only foods that were white. This made me think of my own daughter, who would live on only white bread if we let her.
Other children have limited their food intake to chicken nuggets or starches (e.g., mashed potatoes, corn). When mothers express their concerns to me, I encourage them to check with their child’s pediatrician. Invariably the doctor tells mom that as long as her child is healthy, there’s no cause for alarm. Parents are then encouraged to get their children to attempt eating new foods. Dr. DeOrnellas’ parent of the “yellow-only” child learned that food coloring could go on lots of things. Other parents resort to sneaking healthier foods into their child’s diet (see “Mix It Up”).
Sometimes we miss things that are right under our noses. For over a year my daughter would reject the cheeseburgers that she’d just ordered at a fast-food joint, and I couldn’t understand. Through trial and error we learned that what she wanted was a cheese sandwich, with only bread and cheese. There was, incidentally, only one color and shape of cheese that was acceptable. Once I understood that, I was able to gradually introduce grilled cheese, and then—months later—eggs with melted cheese.
As with anything else, sometimes things work that shouldn’t, other things don’t work that should, and some things only work for a while. When Grace was very young and only wanted bananas, I could sometimes get her to eat avocados because their texture was similar. When she was around 18-months-old, she was suddenly and irrevocably turned off by their greenness, and that was the end of her avocado consumption. As far as I know, she has never tried them again. Still we keep trying.
To get my daughter Grace to try new foods, I work with one food and one attribute at a time. For example, since my daughter likes bananas, we introduced “crispy bananas” (banana chips). Once a child shows a willingness to eat crunchy foods, you can expand to other crunchy foods, like roasted vegetables. This sounds complicated, but it’s very easy—toss them in a little oil, bake at 400 degrees for about 20 minutes, and serve with salt. Believe it or not, my kids love roasted Brussels sprouts and green beans. This is a perfect example of how parenting a kid on the spectrum is like parenting any other child, only more so: you have to break things down into the tiniest pieces, and then break them down even further to present them to your child.
Don’t be discouraged if it takes weeks, or even months, to get a child to try something new. My child learned to like blueberries because I kept putting them in her pancakes, and she eventually got tired of picking around them. Now she eats them right out of her hand. (You learn to relish small victories; what can I say?) I can’t just offer her a blueberry though. I have to market: “Honey, how many plump, juicy blueberries would you like? Five or six?”

Embrace the Familiar
Kids with autism can be attached to objects. I have had success associating a new food with a familiar object. When my daughter was three-years-old, I would wrap her in her Special Blanket and hold her while I introduced a new food. We successfully added golden raisins to her repertoire this way. (Yes, they are different from black raisins.)
A parent told me that she got her child to try several new foods by putting them into the cardboard, chicken nugget containers from her child’s favorite fast-food restaurant. I was impressed that she’d actually talked the manager out of a stash of them!
Don’t ask me why, but chicken nuggets seem to be a favorite among most little kids, not just those on the spectrum, and it is baffling. This was the first meat that Grace was willing to eat. Since we’re not major meat eaters anyway, it seemed logical for us to mix in some soy “chicken” nuggets, and she now eats them too.

Mix It Up
If you have a child who wants to live on bread and cheese, you can be a little sly. You can substitute whole-grain or sprouted bread, use soy cheese, or slip some pureed vegetables into a grilled cheese sandwich. If you start with a small amount, you may be surprised at what you can get between the cheese and the bread. You can definitely get away with sneaking pureed vegetables into baked goods, peanut butter sandwiches, and mac and cheese. Start small so you don’t have an irate child on your hands who is now refusing to eat a familiar food because you’ve added an ingredient.
Some children really like ketchup and will try something new if it is smothered in ketchup. I discovered that the Golden Ticket was garlic salt. I may become ill if I describe some of the things Grace has had with garlic salt, but it worked.

Make It Fun
You may find that your child is more willing to try things if they are presented on his favorite plate or with a favorite spoon. My daughter has a Favorite Plate. It’s become our favorite, too, because it helps her. You can do a lot with cookie cutters as well. Our child really likes nutcrackers, and I found a set of nutcracker cookie cutters. I have smooshed all sorts of things into those cookie cutters, some of which she’s actually been willing to eat. There are dinosaur, robot, and horse cookie cutters available, and many different foods can be cut with them, including cheese, bread, and all kinds of fruits and vegetables if the cookie cutter is small enough.
Silliness can work. My family has made and eaten the houses of the Three Little Pigs, and they beg for Lion Sandwiches (raisins and shredded cheese on top of a slice of bread). Once my kids got excited about Lion Sandwiches, we began to mix in some shredded carrots (for more realistic color in the lion’s mane), and they ate some of them too.
Since my child likes to pretend that she is an animal, she is now happy to eat a carrot the bunny way (whole) or a banana “monkey style,” right outta the peel. In the same spirit we have given new names to many foods with good results. One of Grace’s special interests is lions, and I got her to eat meat by teaching her all about lions and letting her rejoice in the fact that she, too, could be a carnivore. She is also willing to eat—gasp!—broccoli if we pretend to be dinosaurs munching on the tops of trees.

In Praise of Vitamins
Sometimes I settle for food in capsule, powder, or gummy form. We are huge fans of whole food supplementation (see your local natural food store for dozens of options), especially since my daughter is willing to eat them. As with the general improvements to our diet, this is an example of how having ASD in the family has improved the way that we take care of ourselves and our family.
You may have to try many different kinds of supplements. My kids really like Juice Plus+ and Yummi Bears, but they rejected a lot of wonderful ones that I won’t slight by mentioning their names. My thought was to get something into my daughter that would replace the fruits and vegetables that she wasn’t eating while continuing to push actual fruits and vegetables at the same time. My personal experience is that gummy-type vitamins or sweet drinks are tolerated much better than green drink mixes or capsules, but your child just might pleasantly surprise you.

It’s unlikely that your child will starve while you add new foods or supplements into his diet, one by one. If you keep trying, new tastes and textures will make their way onto your child’s plate—and maybe even into his tummy. Good luck, and bon appetit!

Bobbi Sheahan and Dr. Kathy DeOrnellas are the authors of What I Wish I’d Known About Raising a Child with Autism (Future Horizons, 2011). Visit www.bobbisheahan.com, Facebook, and @bobbisheahan (Twitter) to connect with Bobbi.


Copyright © Autism Asperger’s Digest. 2006-2012. All Rights Reserved. Distribution via print means prohibited without written permission of publisher.

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