I made some pretty big mistakes when it came to feeding my first child. Looking back, I can see how some negative aspects of my past regarding food strongly influenced how I handled feeding our firstborn. While I’d love to change the fact that I bit-by-bit quit feeding her foods that she’d repeatedly reject (not wanting to be wasteful) and soon found myself serving the same handful of foods (even driving to the grocery store in the early morning since we were “out”), I can’t. There was a majorly dense fog in my brain at that point in life, though, and I cringe when I think that the mother involved in that whole mess was ME.
Fast-forward a couple years, when I was in the throes of short-order cookhood, I was determined to do right by Child #2. He had a very strong gag reflex, but I persisted. I pureed things to a nice, smooth, liquid, and he slurped up his unsalted, homemade split pea soup, and crunched up his rye crackers (later on). I use these two examples to display the fact that he was a healthy eater, and I marveled at the joy of feeding him vegetables.
When his autism began to show itself, the food situation changed. Soon, he was eating far more limited than his older sister, and I was pregnant with Child #3.
We put our feet down with our daughter, and with time (and many tears shed in hysterics on her part), she began to acquire more foods in her “repertoire” (vegetables, even–gasp!), and got increasingly more ok with the expectation of having to give “new” foods a try. Our son, however, would only get more stressed, and that stress would carry over into every other facet of life. I knew that sometimes you have to dig in and fight through, but I didn’t have it in me to win that battle…or war. The autism (or whatever the driving force was) took me down each time.
You’d have to have chopped through the stress in my house with a pickaxe, tiny bit by tiny bit–that’s how impenetrable and thick it seemed. Our son was basically nonverbal, tantrumming constantly, extremely repetetive, and inconsolable when something interrupted his patterns. By God’s grace, we made it past those months (and years). Our abundantly giving God kept me afloat, but I wouldn’t say that I was thriving in all facets of life–certainly not when it came to meal times.
When our son started preschool, his teacher gave him extra time to build rapport and trust before enforcing her “1 preschool bite” rule at snack time. The bites were miniscule and sometimes probably even faked, but it was simultaneously promising and frustrating. Was he just manipulating old mom and dad? His multi-disciplinary team wasn’t surprised to find that he would respond differently for his teacher, and we have found that to be the case in the past couple years since then (in other non-food related scenarios).
When kindergarten rolled around, I was glad for the half-day option since I didn’t even know what to send for a hot lunch. He loved whole-wheat toast with natural, unsweetened peanut butter (but if the toast had started to cool, he’d gag it up and refuse the rest, if not even refuse it for days). He loved applesauce. He loved pizza. Many crackers were welcomed, and my chocolate chip cookies and sandwich cookies have always been preferred. But that’s about it.
Thinking ahead to first grade, I knew that things needed to change. Boy, did they ever start to change…and not for the better.
Different foods periodically would phase out. He used to love chicken nuggets, but then he’d eat one with a bit of gristle, gag it up, and act traumatized if we served them again later on. Any time one of those gagging episodes happened, we’d jump on guard to try to get him to quit before the whole meal came back up. Worked up, his meal would be done, and we’d know that it could be months before he’d be ready to try eating that food again. With so few foods in his repertoire, how would he survive?
He’s a very smart little boy. I gave him an ABC placemat when he was 1 and he used that in combination with a talking fridge toy to learn the alphabet. He was recognizing print/some words before he had turned three, and by the time he was three he was reading pretty well and also writing.
As it goes with autism, the fascination with the alphabet could so often be an unhealthy obsession. If he walked in a room with a display of the alphabet, he’d say the alphabet through repeatedly and get hysterical if you needed to leave before he had finished. Even if you opted to go back and let him finish, it was all over. How dare you break my pattern, he must have thought.
So, I decided to take his placemat away, and I replaced it with one of the U.S. presidents. Before long, my two year old boy knew all of the presidents. Some of his first true words were, “Nixon, Ford, Truman.”
Though he’s six now, this same principal still applies. I was helping my husband clean his classroom a bit over the summer and found a big poster of the United States that he was going to throw out. I decided to tape it up on the ceiling over my son’s bed. He can now freehand draw our country quite accurately (without looking), name many geographical and locational facts, and is just plain fascinated with the world in general. Much of his time is spent studying, discussing, and drawing maps. My point in illustrating this is how diverse his mind is: incredibly intelligent on one hand, while quite irrational when his emotions come into play. Even feelings of joy seem taxing for him to process.
Anyway, the problem was that foods were “disappearing” from his diet and he wasn’t relenting to try anything new. He’d get furious with me when I’d put my foot down about him filling up on the same foods over and over. Besides, the smells and sights of many foods were seemingly nauseating him. He’d lose all sense of self-control, refuse to come to the table, kick at the walls in the next room, shout at us, climb on countertops or stools to get at things way up high, and kick or punch at his dad and me when we tried to get him down. It didn’t even matter if he was going to be served something that he liked.
Thinking that it would alleviate pressure from him and hopefully encourage him to be less stressed and more optimistic, I always made sure to serve at least one or two components of the meal that would work for him, but I’d limit him to a serving portion. He’d gobble it up and immediately panic. “WHAT ELSE CAN I EAT?” More throwing, tipping chairs, climbing on counters, and being physical with us, his parents. Clearly, things were not good at all.
I’d been asking for help for years. His dr. and nutritionists had never seemed concerned about the fact that it had been years since he’d consumed a vegetable and that the only meat he’d sometimes eat was breaded chicken. It was driving me nuts thinking about how little nutrition his body was getting and how much power his outbursts had on the emotional welfare of our whole family. But who would help me?
I tried so many things. Knowing that he so often believed that anything in print was how things were, I decided to print up “10 Reminders About Meals and Snacks.” They were not rules, per se, insomuch as things like, “Mommy and Daddy love you, so we serve healthy foods because we know that it’s what your body needs.” Or, “Your body can’t get enough nutrition from eating just a couple things over and over. Your body needs nutrients from many different foods.” I’d watch him read the reminders and feel his inner turmoil. He understood what he was reading, but their was a definite barrier preventing him from being able to comply or even truly recognize that we were being loving and helpful by wanting him to feel safe trying “new” things.
I couldn’t handle another meal the way things were. I shut down. I didn’t want to meal plan, because I was truly afraid that I’d prepare something that would push him over the edge and rattle the whole family (again). I’d so often end up throwing together homemade pizza crust in the food processor, my guilt pounding madly beneath my numb exterior. I kept my sanity by mixing other vegetable purees into the sauce: zucchini, carrot, sweet potato…so, at least he was getting a mixture of vegetables by frequently eating pizza. Even so, it wasn’t ideal. Food had too much power over our whole family because of the way it affected him.
My sister told me of a place the mother of her daughter’s school friend owned. It was called “Horizons: The Autism Transformation”. It was a couple hours’ drive from us, but it was a place for people with neurological disorders, like autism. I searched around on the website and discovered that they offered a feeding therapy program. I emailed them, requesting more info and signed my husband and me up for a free workshop about picky eaters. That’s where the next phase of this journey begins…