My son loves grapes. He discovered grapes quite young, and they quickly became his favorite food. At first I was happy we found a healthy choice for his snacks that he liked so much. But then the “grape emergencies” started. Intense reactions spilled over when he discovered there were no grapes in the house. That’s when I realized that eating, too, wasn’t going to be simple for my son with autism.
My son is a very picky eater but through our consistent attempts to get him to eat the unknown, he is slowly adding to his diet. He isn’t a foodie, yet, but he steadily tries a variety of food and adds to his repertoire. Here are three things we learned on his Eating Adventures journey.
1) Same thing, different form
The tricky part is actually getting our son to try a new food. We used some methods I learned from a seminar given by Kay Toomey, PhD, a pediatric psychologist who works with kids who don’t eat (the SOS Approach). If they won’t try a different food, she said, try a favorite food in a different form. So we started just by switching from green grapes to red grapes and back again. Although my son was upset and anxious about the switch, he was motivated because he loved grapes. We then took turns buying each color, in order to not get into the “green” pattern again. In fact, these days he prefers red. Once he mastered this, we built on this fruit preference and began to introduce different types of fruit.
2) Modifications and accommodations apply to food too
Toomey also talked about making it easy for our kids to try new foods. When our son was little, he was literally unable to bite into a whole apple. Also, he really disliked the apple’s skin. So we peeled it and cut it up into small pieces. This way he was able to happily eat an entire apple. After a while, we introduced variety by leaving the skin on. When he was older, we cut the apple into wedges, since by then we knew he would just take a bite of the wedge instead of trying to put the whole thing in his mouth.
For pears, my son wouldn’t touch the cut up fruit because it was “wetter” than an apple. So we gave him a fork, and he ate the whole thing. We look for the modifications that will make it easier for him to at least try the new food. As you accommodate your child’s deficits in other areas of life, the same ideas can be applied at the dinner table.
3) The small plate as the island of safe food
We’ve been having some great success lately with another tip I learned from Toomey’s seminar, which is to put the new food you want your child to try on a separate small plate on the table. We also always make sure he has a preferred food to eat at each meal, which is on his main plate.
We’ve mostly tried to introduce vegetables using the small plate technique. I first tried things that made sense with his preferences – cut up cucumber was cold like a grape, and he could crunch it like an apple. So that worked great. He was very skeptical of the pieces of lettuce we put out, but I kept the dressing off, and let him eat the pieces with his fingers. After a few times, we had him use a fork. Then the next time, we gave him some lettuce with dressing on it, which was a big deal because in his mind, food should not have anything extra on it. But he was used to the routine of trying the food on his small plate, so he ate it. It’s not a preferred food, but he will regularly eat lettuce now.
These three techniques are a great starting point for expanding the foods your child will eat. Starting small, establishing comfort with the routine and then making small changes can slowly grow your child’s food intake. Our dinner table is power struggle free, and my worry over his nutritional health is gone. Because, well, we’re working on it.