For most of us the taste of a particular food is by far and away the most crucial element determining whether or not we like it. For people on the spectrum, texture and other sensory issues can be as much, if not more, important in determining whether or not they will eat a certain food. Being aware of your child’s sensory preferences will make your life so much easier when it comes to trying to work out exactly why some foods are acceptable and others are not to your ‘picky’ eater. I know its hard to believe sometimes but kids on the spectrum do not choose to be fussy. Their sensory systems are far more reactive than in neurotypical people and so they are bombarded with an overload of sensory information during the simple act of eating. When we understand this we can better appreciate their struggles with food and help them more effectively.
Most people have their favourite foods and drink and may be a bit fussy about how it looks or tastes. I am often laughed at for ordering my very weak soy decaf latte (or a “why bother?” as some people like to call it). Multiply my specific requirements by a few hundred and you come close to most children with autism. There are so many food variables that may either put a child off eating or make certain foods highly desirable. Often with a mere glance at a distance my son Orlando appears to be able to assess the relative merits of a food. Will it be the right taste, shape, size, colour, texture, smell, temperature and proximity to other food? What does it sound like when you bite it? What happens when it’s in your mouth; does it easily fill the space inside your cheek to provide a pleasant sensation or does it explode in your mouth when bitten? Is it soft, hard, squishy, chewy, brittle, slimy, uniform in feel, liquid (thick/thin), solid, creamy or crunchy?
Texture is paramount to most autistic childrens’ desire or repulsion of foods. When Orlando refuses something that only yesterday he ate, my first thought is: is the texture the same? Perhaps I cooked it for a minute longer this time or at a different temperature, re-heated it, or one of the ingredients is a different brand or variety. We need to look beyond what we see as a noticeable difference to what they see (and feel, taste and smell). Some food textures are so disgusting to our children that they would rather not eat than have to suffer what to them feels repulsive.
Many kids on the spectrum also have a heightened sense of smell. This can be so offensive they may even gag before the food is anywhere near them. The sound of chewing a crunchy food may be too loud for them, or they may be put off by the way their food looks, such as its colour or shape. There is a never-ending list of ways sensory issues can result in limited food choice, and often the only way we can make sense of it is through observation and trial and error.
Looking for the common denominator in foods your child likes can help you to anticipate what other foods they might accept. It will also help you to understand why they might not like a food they had previously eaten. If for example your child likes crunchy food and the next time you cook the same food it is less crunchy and they don’t eat it, it’s likely that the lack of crunch is the culprit. The same can be said for uncooked food too; a super ripe banana bares little resemblance to an unripe one, even for me. Ask yourself, what is the function of the food for my child? What is it they like about the food? Taste is the most obvious, but there are so many other factors to consider.
Once you know what texture they like, I suggest lots of experimentation to get the foods you want them to eat into a format they will enjoy. If for example you want them to eat chicken, you could make it into a soup (liquid), crumbed and well fried (crunchy), pureed with vegetables (soft) or deydrated (chewy). Make sure you write down any successes so you remember what you did. Don’t expect that if they ate something once they will necessarily eat it again, but it’s certainly more likely. I have found that Orlando eats in cycles. There will be some things he pretty much always eats, but others that he eats for a while, then goes off, and then eats again a few months later. Don’t forget what your child has eaten in the past, as it’s always worth reintroducing old successes if they are starting to go off the current flavour of the month.
Our children’s sensory issues affect all elements of their lives, and food is no exception. The dinner table can be a major battle and become a serious health issue if food choices become too restrictive. Taking into account texture and your child’s sensory issues should significantly improve your child’s eating. If it continues to be a problem it is often helpful to see a healthh professional who specialises in nutrition and children with autism.
May you be full of beans (that are just the right texture),