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Blog and Podcasts about Autism

fussy eater

Jennifer CoffeeCan you imagine your favourite food item? Take a second to think about it, how it smells, the texture of it, the taste. Whether sweet or savoury we all have foods that we enjoy to eat and we also have foods that no matter how many times we try them, they just aren’t ever going to be part of our preferred menu.

We all need food to live and for many Autistics, food is not only for nourishment, but also used to stimulate the mouth or senses. Many children on the spectrum, struggle to eat a variety of foods because of their dislike of certain textures. I know many parents who see this as “fussiness” or that the child is acting “spoiled”, but it really is so much more than that.

For example, let’s take taste. I know I am possibly the only person in the world who doesn’t like tea, coffee, wine, beer, alco-pops or alcohol (for the most part) and even fizzy drinks. I only drink water. Yep, you read that right, only water at room temperature. No, I am not trying to be a celebrity diva that only likes the blue and yellow M&M’s in a crystal bowl, but I am just particular about taste and sensations I feel when drinking liquids. I hate how fizzy drinks of any kind give me a horrible sensation on my tongue. Fruit juices are far too sweet for me so those are a no no, but I do on occasion drink them if I am really thirsty and there is nothing else. I do, occasionally, drink alcohol and the local pubs can vouch for that but must admit it is only rarely a couple of times a year at best. When I drink I only drink vodka and coke no ice and knock them back in to gulps. It isn’t because I like to go on an alcohol binge, but because I don’t like cold drinks and prefer to drink at room temperature, the fizzy feeling of the coke is not as bad if I drink it fast and it also helps me to avoid the taste of the alcohol. Now I can almost hear a few of you saying, “Well don’t think if you don’t like it.” But like most people Dutch courage goes a long way to help me to relax in what is normally a hostile social environment.

Adam swears I am a fussy eater, but I am not…at least not in my eyes. I just don’t like foods that are too sloppy or too much sauce. I don’t care for overly spicy foods, which makes me a terrible Mexican, or so my family tell me. I am happy to try most anything at least once, provided I don’t mind the smell or the look and it does not have a horrible texture. Hmmm… actually reading this back, perhaps I am a little fussy, now as an adult, but I would rather think I am just very discerning with my tastes. Haha. I just like what I like and no one will convince me otherwise and I am sticking with that.

I, personally, am a big lover of crunchy foods, veggie of almost any kind, cooked in almost any way. Thicker foods like pasta and bolognese, but it cannot be runny and any thing with a sauce needs to be on the side so I can put it on myself. This is starting to remind me a bit of When Harry Met Sally, but I can assure you I don’t act like in restaurants. People just have to stay away and not touch me, that isn’t much to ask right? I  also cannot stand anything that is sour or vinegary, my taste buds just can’t take that kind of stimulation. Even my favourite crisps (Chips to those Americans out there) are often just plain ones, ready salted potato crisps or tortilla. Perhaps I am more of a plain jane than I thought. That is ok with me.What we see happens quite often, with my other Autistic “friends” and ASD children is that they either love strong flavours or love basic flavours, love mushy textures or crunchy ones, more sweet or savoury. Me, I guess I am a basic girl, but all three of my boys, Adam and our sons adore strong flavours. I guess they get it from their dad, but it certainly makes for interesting meal combinations.

As a child I loved food. In fact, I eventually became quite a heavy little thing, which gave people another way to make fun of me. If I am honest, some of it was comfort eating.  My horrible life equalled my food obsessions. I soon realised food was the only thing I had any control over and it was, much like affection, something that was only ever given out in small amounts.The more I was denied, the more I wanted it. In fact, I used to be a bit like Homer Simpson with the American cheese slices and would nick them from the fridge whenever I got a chance. Unfortunately for me, the wrappers later lead to my downfall, as well as my mother  to find my big stash of rubbish under the bed. Never mind, I have great teeth and I am sure it was due to all the calcium I ate as a child.

Food for my boys has always been an issue. When my eldest was a baby, I worried that he wasn’t going to get enough calcium because he stopped drinking milk after I began to wean him, but then gave him yoghurt instead. Years later, I cannot get that boy to eat yoghurt for love nor money. My eldest was always really good about trying new foods,  he enjoyed new foods and had a great diet. He followed our, “one bite all done” rule. Which meant any new foods on offer, he would need to try at least one bite and he could be all done with it; if he didn’t like it he could spit it out or just swallow it, whatever fit the situation. This method was used on him from a baby and always got him to try new things so he would have a varied diet. He was the only kids I knew at a young age to eat prawns, blue cheese, smoked salmon, caviar, French sausages and even mackerel straight from the tin. I think because we also taught him baby sign language it helped him to communicate with us to build trust between us and he was happy about the foods on offer. Even now at 10, this kid loves most foods, he loves really strong flavoured cheeses, fish, spicy foods and isn’t afraid to try just about anything. I even remember when he was about 4 and Adam had some raw steak, the eldest wanted to try some, but we told him it was hedgehog and he still wasn’t put off. In fact he liked it. We later told him it was beef, but I was proud that he just went for, even though he was also into Sonic the Hedgehog at the time, cause hedgehog was mmm..mmm..good.

The youngest, on the other hand, is something else completely different. He too loved food, but until about 4 months ago, he would only have certain specific foods. He had processed fish fingers and chicken fingers, most nights. Now as a mother, it broke my heart to give them this stuff. I knew what was in it, but not matter what we did, no matter how we tried to make him fresh, homemade food; he just wouldn’t even contemplate the idea of anything else. Apart from nuts and seeds, the “chicken and fish” were the only things forms of protein he was eating. He would also rather starve and eat nothing at all than to be made to eat something he didn’t like the look of, which for me was not an option for me. On the plus side I did manage to get him to eat some fresh veg and fruits, but it was always with the “chicken or fish” and I use that term loosely, every night. Along with the king of foods, for him, garlic baguettes. The garlic bread could only come in this baguette form. Couldn’t be slices, or like a pizza, or even bread slices with garlic butter, it was only acceptable in the form from which he had originally had to presented and anything less would never do. I couldn’t even change the brands of the foods he ate as he knew when something was different. He rarely saw the boxes or packets, but the texture of the food was enough and even at times he would completely stop eating the same branded foods he had previously eaten because he would say it tasted different.  It just wasn’t something I could do anything about and there seemed to be no solution. Now I know there are parents who go along the lines of, “the kids eat what I give them or they don’t eat!” Yes, this can work for non-autistic children, but with mine, they would rather starve for days than to eat something they don’t like and this coupled with their lack of understanding about health, we would just be fighting a losing battle and for what? The youngest only had to touch something with his finger to know if he was willing to eat it or not. But we kept on trying by taking our son to the shops, showing him new foods, talking about them, touch them, getting him to help me make new foods but still nothing changed. Even when we start at school, it was hard for me to send in the same lunches every day, which usually consisted of nuts, fruit, dried fruit and perhaps rice crackers and yoghurt. The only time he had a school lunch was on a Friday when the lunch ladies would make him fish fingers and peas with bread. This seemed to go on forever. No matter what we tried, no matter what advice I took, nothing helped.

I started changing the way he ate in June 2015 by only giving him 3 meals a day with foods he liked and slow introducing new ones now and again. It was like I opened up something new for him and it all changed from there. His willingness to try new things really took off. He went from a fish finger, garlic bread  some fruit and veg eating child to trying, liking and eating 2-3 new foods a week. It took time, effort, trying over and over again, but once he realised that trying new things wasn’t as  scary as he thought,  we could then offer similar textured foods but with different varieties, it really opened his eyes. I also think that Home Educating him too has had a big impact on his willingness and openness to explore new things. Even watching cooking programmes where he can see from start to finish where the food comes from, how to cook it and the end results has helped him to become more open to new foods.

Yes, I can hear people saying, so what…what’s the big deal? Well let me tell you, when you get your child to willingly overcome their fear of types of foods and trust  that you will not steer them wrong, it is a great feeling. Trying new textures, new temperatures, new scents and sensations without fear, is such a big step forward for him. I remember going on Facebook saying “check it out, he has tried pasta for the first time and loves it”. Even just this week our youngest has eaten raw sweet peppers and Mexican spiced home cooked chicken breast and for me that is what it is all about. He even now is eating milk and cereal in the morning, which was something I never thought he would do as it is mixing a wet thing with a crunchy thing. So, these triumphs show me that perseverance is key to helping my boys expand their diets. Each little victory is a step forward and those steps can sometimes be hard. He is stepping out of his own comfort zone at 6 years old and learning that new experiences can be a good thing. At my age, even I am still trying new things, being open minded about foods and methods. We are all learning together about where our foods come from, how to make them, the traditions behind them and that makes our food more interesting.