This is a situation we often get, and I mean often, with our parents. Our kiddos can be notorious for making us feel like bad cooks – but rest assured, it isn’t your cooking! Children with Autism are much more likely to be picky or troubled eaters than kids without. The issue isn’t so much that they don’t “like” the food, but their body truly cannot tolerate it! In many cases, this stems from experiences in early childhood. Say your child, at a much earlier age, is exposed to a food they’ve never had before, say grapes. When they eat the grapes, suddenly they feel terrible (e.g., upset stomach, too much sensation in their mouth, an intense texture they weren’t expecting, or reflux). That experience becomes ingrained in their head (I.e., Grapes = bad). Repeated experiences such as these with various foods (or even a few foods that may resemble the “scary” grapes!) can derail their acceptance of foods in the future. Whether or not that food would still elicit such a response today, your child has changed his viewpoint on what food can do to his body.
How do we help this? At Blue Bird, we take the feeding approach called SOS, or Sequential Oral Sensory. This approach progresses food tolerance, exploration, and ultimately consumption step-by-step in a fun, play-based, and low-pressure way. In a nutshell, we want our kiddos to be able to tolerate the sight and smell of their food within their space, then slowly progress to touching, smelling, licking, biting, and ultimately eating the food. The best way to do this – play! Use the target foods in a fun and interesting way, with little to no pressure (the days of “eat this and then you can have a dessert” are in the past). Be a model, put the same food you are giving to your child in front of you, and play! This could be creating “kabobs” with the food on a stick, making “snowmen” with the food on your plate, putting the food between your teeth and pretending to be vampires, making dinosaur teeth marks in the food – keep it light, simple, and motivating! Notice, all of these examples, there was no mention of asking your child to “eat this.” If we can reduce the “scary” of these foods, the consumption will come with time!
Now that we know how to play with our food (while that might seem counterintuitive to creating appropriate mealtime habits) what foods do I try first? At BBD, we also utilize a system called food chaining. Food chaining is expanding a food repertoire, changing minimally the characteristics of the foods that ARE tolerated. In your case, you’ve got a kiddo that will only eat chocolate chip cookies. While these are tasty, easily accessible, and fun to make, this leaves little to the nutrition that your child needs to grow and develop. By changing only one or few characteristic(s) at a time (e.g., color, size, shape, temperature), your son is more likely to accept the target food you are presenting. If your child only wants chocolate chip cookies, let’s try a chocolate chip granola bar. This food has a lot of the same taste as a cookie, but it only changes the shape. Use the SOS approach above to master that food. Next, progress to granola (change in shape), and if possible, add plain yogurt (change in texture). Next, use blueberry yogurt with the granola, and last, target blueberries. In this chain, we progressed from chocolate chip cookies, nutrient poor, to blueberries, nutrient rich!
Want to kick the soda? Use the same idea! Rather than the sugary drink, opt for a sparkling flavored water (e.g., La Croix, Bubly). It may be that your child likes the sensation of the fizz in his mouth, which this chain would suffice! Have your child play with the new beverage by adding food coloring. This may allow the liquid to match in color to the preferred soda, therefore only changing one characteristic (flavor).
Be mindful MOPE, that this takes time, patience, and creativity! Picky eaters don’t become food connoisseurs overnight. Your child’s speech language pathologist or occupational therapist is well versed in these treatment approaches, and would be happy to share all of the wonderful visuals, tools, tips, and tricks we use in clinic each day to treat children similar to yours!
All the best,