Food is a basic staple of life. You need food to survive. In the United States, food is everywhere. From the grocery store to fast food restaurants and everything in between. So it goes without saying that food is of major importance in our daily lives. It is a priority. For some of us in the autism community, food can be a major issue. You might not realize how many challenges food can present to someone on the spectrum.
First let us discuss food texture. Some foods are creamy, chunky, hard, soft…the list could continue for quite some time. For many of us autistics, food texture is a big turn off. Let me explain. I will not drink any liquid that contains pulp. This includes, but is not limited to, orange juice and lemonade. I don’t care how good it tastes, I will not let it touch my lips. To me, pulp is furry and chunky. I feel like I am swallowing hair. I rejoiced the day pulp free orange juice was available at the grocery store. As a kid, I actually strained my O.J. (I had a very tiny cup size strainer). No matter how awesome fresh squeezed lemonade and orange juice may taste, if it has pulp, I will not partake. For me it’s pulp, for others on the spectrum it can be peanut butter, applesauce, or pudding. Texture plays an important role in food consumption. No matter how good it tastes, if it doesn’t feel right on the tongue, it doesn’t get eaten.
For us autistics, the way food looks can also be a major factor. Many of us on the spectrum are extremely visual. This means if it looks gross or offensive, push it away. I’m sure we have all heard little kids say their food looks icky. The same goes for some people on the spectrum. Although, the icky factor is not limited to children alone. I hate the way chicken bones look. I dislike chicken bones so much, I cannot eat bone in chicken. I also will not cook it.
Now that we have covered a few food issues, let’s talk about brand specific food. As a mother, I tend to be loyal to certain brands due to their specific qualities. Even though I usually stick to brand names when I grocery shop, I can’t pass up a good sale. What mom doesn’t like to save a few dollars at the checkout? Aren’t generic brands supposed to be just as good? Parents might not pay any attention to what brand, style, box size they buy when doing their weekly shopping. Parents with children on the spectrum often stress over grocery shopping. What if my child’s favorite cereal isn’t in stock? Should I really spend more money to buy that name brand? These may sound like ridiculous questions. I mean really, who would go to great lengths to get special foods or brands for a child? First of all, let me state that this has nothing to do with spoiling your child. These extreme food preferences are not born out of over indulgent parenting. Food preferences, food aversions, and sensory issues related to food are all characteristics of autism.
As I have said before, not all autistics are the same. This goes for food issues as well. Everyone is different. My youngest daughter is very specific with her food choices. She doesn’t like any seasoning on her food (she will actually wipe it off if necessary). Her food cannot touch. She eats the same thing for breakfast for weeks at a time. The only cereal she likes is Cheerios. She is also a stickler when it comes to brand names. I do not advocate making yourself crazy trying to meet every food demand. However, I have learned to pick my battles.
Here’s some things I did and you can try at home when it comes to preventing food battles:
- Start by placing very small amounts of disliked or new foods on your child’s plate at mealtimes. Say “you don’t have to eat the food, just let the food have a spot on the plate.” This way, you are building your child’s tolerance to new foods without forcing your child to eat the new item.
- Make a chart with new foods and reward your child after he or she tries a specific number. Sticker charts work great!
- Involve you child in planning and preparing meals. Meal prep also fosters math, reading, and organizational skills.
Most importantly, try not to stress about your child’s food issues. Autistic individuals often become attached to very specific routines. These routines can include food (yes, I do eat the same thing for breakfast every day). Do not worry if your child has very discerning tastes. Know that just like any child, children with autism will grow and change as well. Choose your battles and do not stress. You can always try those cute little shapes all those Pinterest wizards make out of ordinary sandwiches!