What it's all about

Monday, August 18, 2014

Picky Eaters and Sensory Processing Disorder

Now that my baby is almost ONE (gahhh!) and finally sleeping, I hope to have some time to blog some more about topics that I have been steadily researching and reading about, even though I haven't had time to blog about them.

I am really hoping to post a lot more about autism and what I have learned this past year (so much!) but every time I start a post I find myself second guessing myself.  I am by no means an expert and every day I am reminded how much I don't know.

So for now, I decided to post about something that I do know a lot about, have had much personal experience with, and have also had some successes with.  And that is:
PICKY EATING, and sensory processing disorder.

This post is for parents of picky eaters, or picky eaters themselves- whether or not they have been diagnosed with autism or sensory processing disorders.  I hope that you can find my personal experience helpful, and perhaps some of our tips and tricks will work for you or your picky eater as well.

When I was young I was an extraordinarily picky eater. 
I ate mostly chicken nuggets, macaroni and cheese, cut up hot dogs, and fruit snacks.
Through high school.
This is not an exaggeration.

In addition to being picky, I also could not be around people who were eating foods that I myself could not eat.  For example, when my family was having grilled cheese and tomato soup for dinner, I couldn't even sit at the table.  I had anxiety attacks that I can vividly recall.  The sounds of people eating, the smell of the food, everything made my skin crawl and made me sick to my stomach.  Not just nervous or uncomfortable, but panicky.   Like ants were crawling all over me, and I couldn't breathe.
Knowing what I know now, I can say with confidence that I probably had an undiagnosed sensory processing disorder.  My extreme food aversion was not "the norm", even for a picky eater. 

It wasn't until I lived on my own in my 20's that I began to be able to try new foods.
And these were not, by any means, adventurous foods.
I'm talking like an orange, an egg, a tomato, pizza with pepperoni on it.
When I had to learn to cook for myself I began to try new things because I had control over how it was made and the texture and size of the food.  I could also eat at my own pace without any pressure. 

Surprisingly now, at 30, I can say that I eat pretty much anything.  I love spicy, ethnic foods like Indian and Mexican, and I'll try almost anything.  I hope this offers a little bit of hope for those of you who parent EXTREMELY picky eaters.  Because I really did grow out of it, and learned to manage my other sensory processing issues with maturity as well. 

As the parent of an autistic toddler, and a one year old who is already proving to be quite particular at the dinner table, I have been able to apply some of my experience as a picky eater into helping them manage better with new foods.

Finn started out as a GREAT eater.  I made my own baby food and he loved whatever I gave him.  As he grew up and could try new things he ate whatever we ate.  Chicken casserole, lasagna, indian food, salads, you name it, he'd eat it.  But as he neared two we started seeing him get more selective with what he would eat.  Once he got too big for a high chair we began to have a really hard time getting him to sit at the table for meals at home and especially at restaurants.  I had to develop some strategies to help Finn succeed socially at meal times, as well as help him to continue to eat a variety of foods.

We adopted a food rule, which is "You Have To Try It- But You Don't Have To Like It."
At home, Finn has to try everything that is on his dinner plate.

This is important- "trying" does not mean he always has to swallow what he tries.
Especially if he is trying something new, I am not going to force him to swallow it.
From personal experience, I can say that for a child with sensory issues, this is extremely detrimental and harmful.  If he will put a new food in his mouth and consider it, that is enough.  He can spit it back out. 

Another really helpful tip is- offer a preferred food immediately after the new or nonpreferred food.  For example, if Finn tries a bite of the new meatloaf, I will give him a goldfish cracker immediately after.  This familiar, crunchy texture is a welcome break from the softer, unfamiliar texture and flavor of the meatloaf.  In this way we have had a lot of success with trying new foods.  Finn will willingly finish his meatloaf as long as he can have a goldfish cracker after each bite.  Eventually new foods are successfully "adopted" into his repertoire and he will give up the familiar inbetween bite on his own.  He can manage his own plate, taking bites of texturally different foods at will, much like adults do.

Also, when we are trying new foods at home, Finn is allowed to get up and take a break from the table.  We try to create time constraints to these breaks.  I find that counting can feel a bit stress inducing, so a lot of times we will sing a short song like ABC's.  We will tell Finn "ok Finn, you can take a break and we will sing ABC's, and then when ABC's are over, we are going to sit back down at the table."  Now Finn has learned to self-regulate his own little breaks.  He will run into the next room, touch the spiky twigs and leaves on a plant, and then come back to the table on his own.

Sometimes Finn has a hard time just LOOKING at a food.  For example, Finn loves all manner of Italian food.  Spaghetti, lasagna, chicken parmesan, etc etc.  But sometimes he is visibly uncomfortable looking at it on his plate.  Since Finn doesn't speak, I don't know what it is about the food that is offensive to him, but I think a lot of times it is just the mushy and in-congruent texture without any definitive structure.  In this situation I will often put a familiar food in front of him.  He likes things to be about the same size, and he likes crunchy things.  Apple chips, grapes, chex, etc.  Then I will hold the unfamiliar food behind him, and reach around and give him a forkful of spaghetti from behind him, so that he doesn't have to see it before he eats it.  Of course I do tell him "Here Finn, now we are going to try a bite of ravioli"  Or whatever it is, so he is not caught off guard.  It is much easier for him to try it this way if he doesn't have to look at it.  A lot of times I still have to offer the first bite of his favorite spaghetti dishes this way before I sit it on the table for him, even though he will eat an entire man-sized bowl!  It's like he needs to be reminded by his tastebuds first that he likes it before his eyes will accept the food's appearance. 

For the last at-home food tip, I find that if Finn is not willing to finish his meal or is having a really hard time sitting at the table, a lot of times there is something else going on in his sensory world that is getting in the way.  In these cases,  I will let Finn leave the table, but I will leave his plate on the table and not offer any other snacks between mealtimes.  Nine times out of ten, Finn will go back to his plate and finish everything on it at his own pace. 

Now, for eating out.
Restaurant eating or eating at friends houses is a little bit different.
Sensory-wise, there is a lot going on, and there are a lot of unfamiliar sounds, smells, sights, and textures that Finn has to process.  Finn's go-to reaction in settings like restaurants is he has to MOVE.  He can process and filter what's around him as long as he can keep moving.  But obviously, this is not socially acceptable when you are supposed to be seated at a restaurant.
I have found that, for Finn, in order to sit still at his chair in a restaurant he really needs a book, a small familiar toy, or my phone to be able to hold in his lap while he sits. 
I tell Finn that this is what we call a "compromise".  If he can sit at the table while everyone orders their meal, I am happy to let him hold my phone to watch a youtube video or play a little game.   We compromise in this situation because I know it takes 100% of Finn's energy to sit still while he is being bombarded with new sensory information.  Instead of physically fleeing from it, he can focus his attention on my iphone or on his toy when he needs to escape.
When we go out to eat, I do order Finn a meal.  A lot of times it is a meal he hasn't had before, or a different variation of a meal he has had. 
When we go out to eat, our same rule applies.
You Have To Try It- But You Don't Have To Like It.
However, I have found that 9 times out of 10, Finn cannot eat anything on his plate when we go out to eat.  Even if I know he is hungry.

Through trial and error, I have found that it is not because Finn is unwilling to try, it is because his body and mind is completely consumed with surviving other things.  Sitting still at the table, being in a new and busy restaurant environment, processing all the noises, the smells of everyone's food, and the way everyone's food looks on the table.  For someone with sensory processing disorder, this all takes work and concentration.  He is trying so hard to cope with everything else that he can't bring himself to eat anything.  It's just TOO much.  Sensory overload.

I still try, but if he can't eat anything, then we bring it home. 
Once we get home, I'll put his restaurant meal on a familiar plate and put it on the table. 
I don't make him sit down (he has just survived sitting through everyone else's meal!).
I do encourage him a lot and let him take his time.
And in this way, Finn can successfully stand by our family rule.  He has always been able to at least try, if not finish, everything on his plate.

He still has his most favorite foods.
But as long as he is able to try new things, and feels comfortable around new foods, I think we are building a strong foundation.  I am confident that he will grow to try (and even like!) new foods as he matures.

I myself am proof that there is hope for even the pickiest of eaters.
Tomatoes and mozzarella are now one of my favorite things to eat- something that would make me cringe as a child and young adult. 
I still have never been able to eat a bowl of cereal with milk on it.
I still honestly have trouble sitting at the table with Billy when he eats a bowl of cereal with milk.
But I can do it now, whereas when I was young I really physically could not.

Hopefully when the boys get older they will be able to help make their own meals, and having control over how their food turns out will help them feel confident to try new things as well.  I hope that my experiences will help them become more successful eaters, and I hope that some of what works for us will work for you too!


**Side note-
Forgot to mention Finn has also had a lot of success watching little videos of kids trying new foods.  One of our favorites is this one:

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Sharing a Link...

How Do We Learn if We Don't Make The Effort?

I wanted to share this link to the blog "Ido in Autismland".

He has a valuable first person perspective on Autism, as he himself is nonverbal and Autistic.

Please read more about him, and enjoy his most recent article.

I hope it reminds everyone that just because someone doesn't speak doesn't mean they have nothing to say.

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

In the past three days....

In the past three days Finn has:

a) peed on the potty every day.
b) gone under water at swim lessons.
c) jumped off the diving board (twice!)
d) had his first dentist appointment with no tears and no special accommodations.
e) had his best day of preschool yet.
f) fallen madly in love with his summer babysitter.
g) said cheese for this picture "chuss!"

Folks, you're looking at a big boy.

Saturday, May 10, 2014

For Millie.

My cousin Jai asked me to write something to read at my Aunt Millie's celebration ceremony today, since she liked reading my blog so much.  I was so honored, and happy to oblige, as my thoughts always come out better on paper.  I decided to post it on the blog for any family or friends who couldn't make it today.   She was one of the best, and I look forward to the day when I'll see her again.

For Millie:

When my sister Mandy and I were little, my Aunt Millie and Uncle Jon were in their heyday. 

It was the late 80's, the economy was booming, and if you lived near the water and wore a Guy Harvey shirt, my Uncle Jon probably sold you a boat.

We loved Uncle Jon because he always took us shopping and cooked the best fish on the grill.  But Aunt Millie... well she was something special altogether.

You see, she was always fabulous.

She always had her nails done.  She always had her hair done.  She had the best clothes, and the best jewelry, and the best tan.  She had a California King sized bed and a water fountain in her bathroom. (I only found out later that it was called a bidet and wasn't actually for drinking out of at all.)

Mom and Dad would take us down to North Carolina to visit, and Aunt Millie and Uncle Jon would take us out on the boat- speed boat, pontoon boat, fishing yacht, whatever boat you wanted, and Aunt Millie would wear a bikini and the hottest new sunglasses and sit on that boat with a glass of wine in her hand like she was born that way.

I remember so many fabulous things about Millie when I was little... going through her jewelry and smelling her perfume, watching her move through a room like she was liquid, but the memory that stands out the brightest was when she was "Nurse Millie."

They would come visit us in our little ranch house outside of Baltimore whenever there was a boat show in town.   One visit Mandy and I were fresh on our bikes without training wheels and Mandy turned the corner in the driveway and wiped clean out and wound up with a knee full of gravel.   She was boo-hooing, and I remember trailing behind as Millie, in all her fabulosity, scooped her up and carried her to the bathroom and told her Nurse Millie would make it all better.  She propped her up on the sink and set to work cleaning that knee, and we were so mesmerized by her that pretty soon Mandy was laughing instead of crying and I was busy thinking up ways how I could skin my knee so I could have Nurse Millie take care of me so good.  I remember for a long time after that whenever Mandy or I would get hurt, we'd always wish Nurse Millie was there to fix us up.  It's funny, because many years later we'd both end up living with Millie at separate times when we were young women that needed fixing up... because somehow even when we got hurt the grown up way, she could still make us feel all better.

We all had our ups and downs, my sister and I to be sure, but Aunt Millie and Uncle Jon, too.  The economy bottomed out, boats weren't selling as hot, and they had to downsize a time or two.  When I think back on it now, the thing that comes to mind is that Bible verse... "I will cast all my cares upon Him, I will lay all of my burdens down at His feet".  Because we never saw Aunt Millie sweat.  She was never stressed.   She was always gracious, always smiling, and there was always a place for you at her table.  I'm sure she must have felt a lot of stress in some of those times, but the only evidence we could ever see of it was her Bible on the end table.  I know now it was because she brought all of her cares to Jesus and laid them at as His feet, so she could be there at our feet to listen to ours.

The Lord was faithful, and in the middle of some of the hard times Aunt Millie got herself a grandbaby.  I remember going to visit after Jenna was born, and the whole house felt brighter.  Jenna was Aunt Millie's light.  Then Zack came along, and she was just so proud.  Back then I could see those babies light up and shine through Millie, but, you know, now I can see Millie shine through them.

I thought for a while that I might ask everyone to share with me their favorite memories with Aunt Millie to include in this tribute.  But then I thought, I wouldn't be able to write about somebody else's memories and do them justice.  Those have to live in your own hearts the way that memories do.  But I thought, too, that everyone else's memories of Millie are probably, in a lot of ways, the same as my memories.  Because she was always the same Millie to everyone.

You see, she was everything.

She was always there for you 100% no matter what.

She was the best person to laugh with, and the best person to cry with.

She taught me how important it is to set a nice meal at the table.

And how it's even more important to let the dishes sit in the sink for awhile after because, girl, sometimes you just need to put your feet up and have a glass of wine.

The last time I saw Aunt Millie I had it in my mind all the things I was going to tell her, and all the ways I was going to thank her, and how I was going to say she had fought so hard for so long and she had done us all proud and she could go ahead and quit now.  But she came out of her bedroom to see me and my babies, and she still had her head held up high and, wouldn't you know it, she still wouldn't let me see her sweat.  And we sat down and had ourselves a visit just like we've had so many times before.  And she asked me to tell her about all of my stuff and so I did.  And I couldn't bring myself to talk about any of her stuff, because we just never did it that way. It wasn't right, even at the end.  So I told her about the boys, and Uncle Jon said, "You've got your hands full", and I said, "Oh, but so is my heart," and Aunt Millie sighed and said, "That's right, girl."

And she squeezed my hand.

And I felt in that moment that I had got it right, that all those years I'd spent watching her had finally paid off.

I know firsthand now that the most full life is the one that's spent simply loving on the ones you love.  My Aunt Millie taught me that. 

And I think we can all agree, that if loving on your family constitutes a full life, then our Millie had the fullest life of all.