Food Sensory Issues: Why won’t my Autistic child eat?!

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Written by Shalev White

You stand in the grocery store aisle and your heart drops.  The brand of chicken nuggets that your child likes, is gone.  There’s not even an empty spot for it.  You already know what this means before you ask.  Your child’s favorite brand of chicken nuggets is gone.  The worker at the store doesn’t understand the panic on your face.  He doesn’t understand that this is the only thing your child will eat, and you don’t feel like going into a long explanation of food sensory issues for Autistic children.

You grab a bag of a different brand that seems like it might work, and then wander the store looking for anything else they will eat.  Maybe some grapes or an apple?  But what about dinner?  You start aimlessly throwing things into your cart: things they sometimes eat, things you hope they try, a few things you know they won’t eat but buy anyway so that you can be a “good parent”, and then a few things to comfort yourself with after all the tears are done and they are in bed.

Now you’re at the door to your house.  You know your child is going to ask for the chicken nuggets that no longer exist, and you know what will happen when you say you can’t get them anymore.  Do you just go in and get it over with, or stay outside for just a few seconds before everything goes down?  None of this is fair.  If you just had that one item, you would have a nice meal and put them to bed.

So you make a quick post in the Facebook group for parents of Autistic kids, just so you can hear someone say, “I’m sorry.  I understand.”  Then you go in and deal with everything you need to.

Perspective of One Autistic Person

I hate food touching each other, especially food of different textures and sizes.  I would always be separating my food on my plate as a child.  My mother didn’t mind as much.  Eventually, it just became sometimes funny that I always did.  I also had to eat everything in a specific order.  I would eat one thing at a time starting from my least favorite thing to my most favorite thing that was available for that meal.  I wanted the last thing in my mouth to be the best experience.

I never had as many issues with food as some Autistic people can.  I think that was partially due to my parents just allowing me to do whatever made me happy as long as I was eating.  I do remember my mother talking about when the only things I would eat were mac and cheese and chicken nuggets.  However, both my parents worked and they didn’t have the time or energy to make sure I was eating my daily amount of fruit and veggies.  I think I just eventually started trying things as I got older, and my parents had the rule of:  you must take three good bites before refusing to eat it.  I’m not sure if I would do that to my children, but it was a common thing for that area and time.

I do have issues with yogurt.  I’ve never liked it, but if it’s frozen it’s much better.  Noodles have to be cooked properly or I just can’t stand the texture.  I base most food that I like based on the texture of the food.  My husband now even knows if I will like the food based on the texture.

Perspective of One Autistic Mother

My son has always had issues with food.  I already understood the need for separation of food.  So I’ve always given him trays with separate sections.  He eats much better when he has a tray that separates things for him.  It makes me smile when I watch him eat things one at a time in a systematic order.

I can only put one new food on his tray at a time.  If his tray is full of completely new food, then he doesn’t know what to do.  I also try to think of foods that are very similar to what he already likes and will put them next to each other.  For example, my son loves frozen peas, and yes he eats them frozen.  So I’ve started giving him frozen carrots next to the frozen peas.  We did the same thing with noodles.  I gave him the ramen noodles he loves right next to buttered spaghetti noodles.  He now eats the buttered spaghetti noodles and will at least touch and play with the frozen corn.

Photo by Shalev White:  Depicts the sectioned tray she uses for her son.

How You Can Help Your Autistic Child with Food

If you’ve talked with a nutritionist, you may have already implemented some of these.  I’ve found that a pediatric nutritionist can be the biggest help in coming up with some ideas and a plan that best suit your child’s food sensory issues.

  1. Structured Meals

This is important for every child, but having those structured times allows for your child’s body to get hungry on a schedule.  Also having these meal and snack times included on your visual schedule will help your Autistic child understand and predict the rhythm of the day.  It can be very difficult to think about eating whenever your brain is stuck on a different activity.  The schedule can help with that aspect.

  1. Food Play

Take out some food from your fridge and set it on the table.  Make sure this is food that is ok if it gets destroyed.  It can just be a few items if that’s all you have.  You may even need to do this with only one food if that’s all your child can handle.  Then allow them to smell it, touch it, lick it, move it around, watch it bounce, etc.

I understand this can cause you a lot of anxiety, but this is how we learn.  We need to test things and see how it reacts.  Think of it as a scientist exploring a new item from an alien world.  That scientist would need to run lots of tests.  That’s what this is.

  1. Small Steps

This is where I will tell you to refer to a nutritionist or your pediatrician about a specific plan.  What I do want to tell you is to not overwhelm your child with every option at once.  That is just too much to handle.  If they will only eat one food right now, give them that and something that is similar to it.  I don’t just mean something that looks similar, but also something that has a similar texture, like the ramen noodles and the spaghetti noodles.

  1. Trays Instead of Plates

This is a common kid item, but get one with lots of dividers.  I’ve even found these at the Dollar Store.  The more sections you have, the more things you can give them.  My son loves honey mustard, and not just any honey mustard, it must be a specific brand of honey mustard.  If I give him hot dogs, sauce, frozen peas, frozen corn, and buttered spaghetti noodles, I need five sections for each of those.  Having lots of sections is very important.

Testing Autistalline Glasses

(Disclaimer (this section will be the same in all blog posts) I was given an tester pair of Autistalline, Autistic Sensory Overload glasses. They are for investigational purposes only and are not available for commercial use since they are not yet FDA-Approved. I write about my experiences with the glasses and all experiences and opinions of Autistalline Glasses are my own. I am not paid to test the glasses on me or my son. I am compensated for writing blogs and producing content. All contents in the blogs I write and post on this website are actual recounts of my daily experiences as an individual diagnosed with Autism. Each experience will vary from person to person with Autism. Any content contained in this blog is for general informational purposes only and is not a substitute for medical advice, care and treatment. Please consult your healthcare provider.)

This was probably one of the strangest experiences I’ve had while testing these glasses.  Food tastes different.  I first noticed this with my coffee.  My husband had gotten a new creamer around the same time I got these glasses.  I noticed that I needed less creamer than normal.  I didn’t think much of it and just assumed that it was just that this new creamer was stronger than other ones.

One morning, I made coffee and hadn’t put my glasses on yet.  For some reason, the coffee didn’t taste right.  I thought about it for a while.  The creamer was fresh.  I made the coffee the same way I always do.  The only thing different was the glasses.  I put the glasses on and the coffee tasted right now.  I took them off, it tasted wrong.  I put them back on, perfect cup of coffee.  I thought it had been the new creamer, but it was actually the new glasses.

I then did a plain coffee test.  With the glasses, the coffee tastes smoother and less acidic.  When I take them off, the coffee becomes more acidic.  I always drink it with creamer because the acid in the coffee is too much for my stomach, but now I just get to enjoy a little bit of creamer for flavor.

I’ve also noticed a change in flavor for yogurt, cheese cake, and cherries.  I’ve always hated those things because of the bitter tangy flavor.  However, with the glasses, I don’t taste that and it’s sweeter.

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The opinions and narratives expressed by the bloggers and by those who comment of the blogs on this website are their own and may be different and relative to other persons, and do not reflect the opinions of Autistalline LLC. The information posted on any blog is not intended as a substitute for professional medical advice. Please always seek consultation with your treating physician or psychologist.

The use of the Autistalline Autistic Sensory Overload Glasses is for INVESTIGATIONAL PURPOSES and is NOT AVAILABLE FOR COMMERCIAL USE AS THE DEVICE IS NOT YET FDA-APPROVED. Further, Autistalline LLC does not claim that the use thereof as depicted in the videos is reliable, safe, or effective for uses being investigated. Autistalline Autistic Sensory Overload Glasses carry a risk of failure and adverse consequences.

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