When I was growing up family mealtimes used to be a polite business of sitting down together and eating whatever my mum had prepared. No questions, no demands, no tantrums. We were expected to eat whatever was cooked even if it was the not-so popular meat stews that emerged from my mum’s pressure cooker.
Aside from the horrors of the meat stews the philosophy of eating the same meal together was one that I carried over into my own mothering. However, things have not quite worked out as I intended as we have had increasing problems getting our two younger children to eat the same food as the rest of the family. The main reason for this is that my younger children, typical of those with autism, have sensory difficulties in their mouths which mean they have different responses to certain textures, temperatures and flavours of foods.
My aspergers daughter is overly sensitive and can respond quite dramatically to the taste and texture of certain foods. In particular she cannot tolerate the texture of meat, cooked vegetables and foods that are ‘coated’ such as finshfingers and will often react by refusing to eat or even ‘storming off’. Even if she does try a food sometimes the sensation is so overpowering for her that she spits it out as was the case with cooked carrots the other day. It is easy to think that it is the strong flavour of carrots that is the problem here but it is the texture that is difficult for her as she will eat raw carrot sticks.
My son on the other hand is undersensitive and loves putting things in his mouth. In particular he likes to chew things like the collar of his jumper or bits of paper or plastic just to get the sensation that he craves in his mouth. This is something that became noticeable during his infancy when he wouldn’t chew and would store food in his mouth until he would gag. Of course I didn’t realise then that he had a sensory issue in his mouth or that he was autistic and I spent many an anxious time watching him closely to prevent him choking. Now that my son is older his undersensitivity means he has a tendency to overeat, particularly his favourite foods of meat, cooked vegetables, mashed potato and chips – all the things my daughter hates.
As a result, family mealtimes can be a nightmare made worse by the teenage daughter’s food fads. However, if I can rustle up variations on a ‘theme’ there is a greater chance that we will have a civil family mealtime. So a ‘bean night’ for example may include a vegetarian bean casserole or baked beans (with or without sausages) or even a chilli con carne. I know this may sound like I am pampering to my children by providing a hotel style service but for my children having certain foods in their mouths can feel really unpleasant.
To try and understand this I use the analogy of marmite and liquorice. I cannot stand these food stuffs to such a degree that I would probably gag if I got so much as a hint of it on my tongue. Now I can understand a little bit about how my daughter feels towards the foods that she can’t cope with. Similarly, for my son I use the biro analogy. As a student I would often chew the end of my pen, without thinking sometimes. It was a destressor and if someone had stopped me doing that then I’m sure I would have become more stressed. Now I can get a sense of what it may feel for my son when he chews things.
Thinking like this has helped me to become more understanding and to tweek my cooking to accommodate their sensory needs. Nevertheless I don’t totally give in to their taste buds and I’m always encouraging my children to try new foods but I never force it. I have learnt the hard way that by doing this I can avoid emotional outbursts and difficult behaviour and as a family we then have a chance to sit together, eat together and talk together.
And for me, being together at the end of the day is as important as encouraging my children to develop a more varied diet.