Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Parenting a Sensory Challenged Eater: Sharing Frustrations and Helpful Suggestions

At nine months old, my son would eat any baby food I offered him. He was like a little bird that would open his mouth and gobble it up. As we progressed into chunky foods he not only slowed down, but would gag and struggle to eat. This was one of the first red flags in what turned out to be Sensory Processing Disorder associated with Aspergers Syndrome. I am not a food expert, and my son is still extremely limited on his diet so I have no fix-all solution to offer. I am just a mom who has tried a lot, gotten frustrated, felt pressured by other moms and family members and felt the need to share some of my experiences.

My son is now in kindergarten and lives on a very self-restrictive diet. I have taken him to food therapy, set up reward charts, read countless books, blogs, and tried my own tactics to help him. I am not seeking for him to be an adventurous eater, but one that eats more than 10 items. I tried various diets, the "he'll eat when he's hungry" approach, and others with out much success.

Here are a few things I have found useful for my son and myself as his parent. I am not saying these things will work for everyone. As with all diagnoses what works wonders for one child will do nothing to help another. If there is a technique, app or book you have found useful for your sensory challenged eater, please share in the comments below. You may help other parents struggling with the same issue.

1. Read The Sensory Challenged Eater

This is a post from October 2013 in which a reader shared her rules for dinner in her household. Sometimes I go back to read this article when I need a reminder that my son isn't the only sensory challenged eater out there. Having so many parent friends that "just don't get it," it is nice to find someone who can relate.

2. Smell, Kiss, Lick and Bite

This is the process our food therapist used to help get my son more comfortable around new foods and to SLOWLY get it closer to his mouth. He had four steps to help him get more comfortable with a new food - smell it, kiss it, lick it and finally take a bite. To get the hang of what was expected we started with a food my son already liked progressing into foods he refused. Often times it would take many sessions before he would even kiss a new food, let alone taste.

I have created a handy downloadable chart  to help record and reward with stickers, stamps, or check marks in each box. We draw pictures and write the name of the food he will try and reward each step. We spend weeks on one or two foods, but we also take breaks. For my sanity and his anxiety level we do not make this a constant battle.

3. Behavior Apps

There are so many apps out there to help with behavior management. Our top reader recommended apps for behavior management lists many app ideas which may help. Below are a few ways my family used these apps.

This virtual sticker chart is easy and always within reach.  We customized tasks and rewards to include trying a new food that day as well as eating a specific food. We did not force the issue, but he could easily see what he earned for his action.
(FREE, iPad/iPhone)

Stepping Stones -- Daily Routines, a 4 star app
We created a visual routine to let him know what is expected. With Stepping Stones, it is easy to take pictures of the actual foods he is expected to try. We created a routine for him to review based on the Smell, Kiss, Lick and Bite system above.
($0.99, iPhone/iPad x2)

Choiceworks Calendar 
This app consists of a customizable visual calendar. We assigned days and times when he was given the opportunity to try something new. This way he was prepared and not surprised. We always allow him the opportunity to try new foods, but he knew ahead of time on these days what foods would be available.
($4.99, iPad only)

4. Don't play the blame game

The most important things I have done concerning my son's sensory food issues is to not blame my parenting skills and to realize there is no one fix-all answer out there. I have gotten more parenting advice centering on my son's eating than almost any other topic. Some advice was well meaning while other was judgmental and harsh.

When we were in the early stages of "food issues" I blamed myself. All these other parents would complain about their picky eaters and how they just wouldn't stand for it and put their foot down. They wouldn't let their child run the dinner table. So I placed all the blame on myself and thought I must be reinforcing his bad habits.

It took a few years before I accepted that there was something more than him being a picky, stubborn kid. I read somewhere that often for a sensory challenged eater, the anxiety of the underlying sensory issue is stronger than the fundamental need to eat. I have seen this in my son. He will choose going hungry over taking a bite out of cheese or a noodle. I had to realize there is a strong underlying issue and not just my son being stubborn or difficult. Taking the blame off myself allowed me to work with him instead of fighting against him.

Though I have gotten much great advice and support from other parents and friends, I know ultimately it is up to me, my son, and his doctors and therapists to decide what to try. We have good days and bad but this is a lifetime opportunity to grow his diet, not an overnight fix. What advice have you gotten? What works and doesn't work at your household?

Rachel H hated cold cheese until she was in her twenties. Unless it was melted over something, she wouldn't touch it.

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