Autism at teatime

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.

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12 Responses to Autism at teatime

  1. wendy says:

    Your not pandering to them. We have the same problem with two of them having different texture issues. We do 3 different meals for tea. Also we found that if you let them choose what they want say from a choice of 3 or 4 set meals. least you know thew is a chance that will eat it . Big hugs it is hard xxxxx

    • Aspie in the family says:

      Hi Wendy, I think because of the way I was brought up it has been quite hard adapting to a different way of doing things. I also find it quite tiring cooking so many different meals every night but as you say giving them a choice means they will eat something and then we do sit together which I think is really important. I’m glad I wrote this post because its been reassuring to hear that other families have the same issues and approach it in similar ways. Thanks for commenting Wendy and to everybody else for their valuable contributions. Deb x

  2. Jazzygal says:

    You are definitley not pandering to them! It took me a very long time to accept that too and for many years there were 3 different meals here too…and eating out just didn’t happen. Well we went out and my hubby and I ate but our son didn’t…(that’s why our ‘Secret Date’ I wrote about recently was SO special.) I agree that sensory issues are very much in play but I also felt something else going on. Anxiety levels? I felt that as interventions took place and were successful that over time he was open to at least trying new foods. ‘Try it and see’ is our motto…and a sniff, a lick or a full taste gets HUGE praise! Sensory issues still there but he’s learned to cope better now…does that make sense? My guy also has an extreme sense of smell and will gag at certain food smells! He won’t eat fruit but is now tasting our home grown raspberries!

    I started a series of blog posts a while ago to share our culinary experiments…Cooking with WiiBoy. I really should add some more to it!!

    Thanks for visiting my blog. I must add you to my blog roll now:-)

    xx Jazzy

    • Aspie in the family says:

      Thanks for your contribution Jazzy and its great to hear how your son is coping better with food. I’m sure your experiences will help lots of others reading this post and I for one will definitely read up on your culinary experiments. I think you’re right about anxiety levels. What I have noticed is how the more anxious my children become the more their autistic behaviours intensify including their opposition to trying new foods. We try and manage their anxiety levels but sometimes its difficult when things like school and the outside world upsets them.

  3. I love your idea of a theme night. It sounds like a great way to meet everyone’s needs.

    • Aspie in the family says:

      It does seem to be working and hopefully as they try out new foods they might find they enjoy them.

  4. Lizbeth says:

    Forgot to change over to your new blog, whew, glad I found you again!! I know, it doesn’t take much to confuse me. ;)

    I do the same thing every day, every meal. I try to do the same things too–variations on a theme. Sometimes it works sometimes not so much.

    I too, am glad we can be together and not worry to much about the meal, although my grandmother would be turning over in her grave…. ;)

    • Aspie in the family says:

      Great to see you back. I’m sure my grandparents would be horrified at the nature of our mealtimes too. Last night was a classic. Son refused to break away from his ‘special interest’ to eat anything and then just before bedtime announced he wanted his meat and veg!!! Can’t recall the outcome; I went to bed and left my OH to deal with it.

  5. Blue sky says:

    I have the same problems here! Four different meals have to prepared, or like you, variations on a theme if I’m lucky. Even my NT daughter has sensory issues with food and has a strong dislike for certain textures, such a fruit. That’s why I love eatin out so much…

    • Aspie in the family says:

      Hi Blue Sky – its interesting but my NT daughter is equally difficult to please; she can’t even look at a bottle of salad cream without feeling sick! Going out; now that’s an idea – problem is we have to agree on where to go!

  6. lucy says:

    Same here, every blinkin’ evening! I used to eat whatever was put in front of me – liver and onions, bubble and squeak, beef stew…my brother refused to touch any of it but still had to sit with the meal in front of him.
    My 3 are all different, eldest has really big issues, only recently has he tried gravy, ketchup, beans and other ‘wet’ food. Vegetables are a no no with the exception of broccoli and sweetcorn. He’ll eat chicken wrapped in bacon, but not a bacon sandwich (the list goes on). Middle son (4) will eat anything as long as we feed him, youngest has recently taken to refusing most food. I hate mealtimes.
    I have worked with children who survive on fresh air and others who eat anything from staples, protective gloves and pencils to 15 packets of crisps and a loaf of bread.
    The most painful to watch (for me) was Tom. He would eat a whole lemon along with peel, onions like apples, garlic cloves with skin, and insects. Maybe our kids are doing just fine?! X

    • Aspie in the family says:

      Oh yes I forgot about the bubble and squeak and liver and onions – whatever has happened to those dishes?

      I know what you mean about hating mealtimes – we have moments when our youngest refuses to eat anything hot or spicy, our son only wants to eat meat, potatoes and veg and our teenager refuses to eat anything I make unless it is super spicy. I try and be flexible with my cooking but its hard to continually rustle up so many variations every night and also try and encourage them to try new things. I wish things were more straightforward. Deb x

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