As a person who loves her food, cooking, eating, discovering and eventing new dishes it is completely alien to me how my son can have seemingly no interest in food or eating what-so-ever.
It is also of course a huge worry to me to make sure he is getting the nutrients he needs. In common with many autistic people I have come across he really has no hunger response or at least it is delayed until he is on the point of starvation and also food presents a multitude of sensory challenges.
A while back I read this article about eating with an interview of an autistic girl on her views on eating https://autismawareness.com/the-reason-i-dont-like-to-eat/ . That gave me the idea to interview my own son and find out what specific things he found difficult. We had loads of fun doing it, I put on my specs and got out a clip board and did a reporter style interview with breaks for giggles. According to him the main areas of difficulties are:
- Overwhelming sensory input. in the form of colour, smell and texture. He said some strong flavours were good but most food didn’t taste or feel (in his mouth) good to him. He stated he wished someone would invent a tasteless, flavourless, colourless block you could just pop in your mouth and get all your nutrients from.
- He doesn’t feel hungry so eating is an effort. it takes too long and he would prefer to be doing something else.
- He doesn’t like eating near other people, they chew loudly, look strange and eat ‘gross stuff’ apparently. (note to self – work on table manners!).
- He feels pressured to eat if asked to and that makes it harder to eat (ie becomes a demand).
- He is scared of food cooked by other people (unless it is Ronald McDonald or Colonel Sanders apparently!). He finds it extremely difficult to eat at other peoples houses as the food is not predictable and it causes him huge anxiety.
So here are some of the solutions I have come up with over the years and things he said have helped.
- Sensory problems – Understanding the textures that he is most adverse too and avoiding them by changing cooking methods or avoiding certain things. In my sons case it is sloppy food or anything with a similar texture to mash potato. Also avoiding strong smelling foods like fish.
- Having little hunger response – I have discovered you can use sensory sensitivity to your advantage and I bake bread or cakes most days as I find the smell actually stimulates his appetite and even gets him down from his room to find out what’s cooking. Baking with him is also a good and things like getting him to top his own pizza give him choice over what goes on so he can avoid anything which he feels adverse to.
- Eating being a chore – Adding the fun factor into food really helps I have found. Over the years we have had some really odd eating strategies to make eating fun they tend to last for weeks or even months. We have had making every meal a party by putting all his food on cocktail sticks (yep a full roast dinner cubed and speared). We have had eating nothing but bbq for an entire summer. Pizza or pancake topping and sundae making competitions. Everything in taco shells. Eating out of a lunch box and calling it a snack pack. Having picnics or eating outside. Eating dipping platters of various kinds. Movie nights with homemade pizza or burgers and popcorn. We bring food into his home education a lot too, he is currently eating mainly American food as he has been learning about American history. The list goes on and has changed and evolved as he has got older. Currently after breakfast he mainly grazes and then has one evening meal which is sometimes a larger grazing plate if he is finding food a particular challenge.
- Other people putting him off – I was brought up eating around a table as a family and my son use to do the same but it was a battle. These days he generally eats in his room or we stagger our meals and I eat later when he is in bed or his room. It is a battle I choose not to pick any more!
- Feeling pressured to eat – I never pass comment on what my son has eaten or not eaten (be it a little or a lot), I don’t punish him for not eating. I put the food down and leave the room generally and find he eats better in front of the tv as he is not then thinking about eating. One thing that has been a great help to me is that my son had a dietitian when he was younger because he was allergic to a huge amount of food (and no I don’t mean intolerant, I mean blood tested properly allergic, blow up like a balloon or screaming around the room as his skin was burning allergic). Anyway she told me that nutrients don’t have to balance everyday as long as they even out over the week then that’s ok so that’s what I work on. If he say eats mainly cheese one day and mainly fruit the next I don’t worry as long as over all he has enough for each food group in his diet over the days or week.
- Eating at other peoples houses – He doesn’t. People we visit we know well and he is not expected to eat, I bring something or he waits until he gets home.
- Trusting fast food and not liking cooking smells – probably once or twice a week we will eat takeaway. It cuts out the sensory overload of the smell of cooking and he will always eat it. KFC or McDonalds are consistent and he knows what he is getting. I know it might not be the best food, but it is food, it is calories and most of the rest of what he eats is cooked from scratch or fresh food such as fruit, milk or cheese.