Trigger Warning: Mentions food, eating disorders and sensory aversions.
Please note the below is my personal experience and I am not a qualified medical professional or dietician.
Food. Glorious food.
Let’s talk about it.
In our family, we’ve had a variety of food-related challenges such as eating disorders, sensory-related food avoidance due to texture, smell, taste and presentation, anxiety-related food avoidance and control (often manifested in restriction or bingeing), I could go on and on.
Basically, after a lifetime of having my own volatile relationship with food, witnessing and attempting to combat similar struggles in my children and knowing how anxiety plays out in exercising control over food, I do my very best to approach food in a radically accepting manner.
I follow my children's lead.
With the PDAers, if our brain decides chocolate is what we’re having for breakfast, we honour it. When we place any barrier in front of that need, the brain will have a frenzied response and believe all it needs to feed the body three times a day is chocolate.
If chocolate’s for breakfast, it is NOT the worst thing in the world.
I cannot stress enough the importance of keeping our focus in the current moment, and not projecting into the future. Projecting into the future sounds like “If my child eats chocolate for breakfast, they’ll be on the fast track for a range of health issues and a heart attack by their teens”.
It’s chocolate for breakfast right now. Just now. At this moment.
Here’s the thing: our children know that nothing is off-limits at any mealtime.
And, they eat what we offer. Not always, there will be mornings where I’ll serve up a few different options because I find it important to work with taste, mood, what the body calls for, and to help our children become more intuitive around their nutritional needs.
In the beginning, I found this process exhausting, frustrating, and annoying.
I’d get really angry. Sometimes I’d cry.
I used to spend hours in the kitchen trying to overcompensate for the lack of eating, the crap foods, the restrictive nature of their diets.
And then I burnt out. I’m thankful for that.
When I’m forced to do differently, there is an opportunity for transformation.
I let go. I just went with it. I created space in our lives for the exploration of food to be our normal, and it stopped feeling so exhausting and hard.
This is a key point for the exploration of neurodivergent identity and culture and family life.
I was in fact, honouring my children's needs whilst healing my own hang-ups with food.
I came from a background of biomedical study and the implementation of theories and practices that did more harm than good in terms of diet. Destroyed my mental health and fed my trauma.
We don’t force our children to eat. If they say they don’t want what we put in front of them, we say “No worries, is there something else you’d prefer?”.
Sometimes we ask if they’ve had a taste or we ask what it is they don’t like about the food, so we can learn whether it’s a sensory issue or just a preference for something different.
Sometimes there are requests we respond to with an absolute “Oh hell NO”, like pizza while everyone else is eating a home-cooked meal, etc. And saying no is okay for us, and for them. Our little people won’t always like this, but we continue working with them to find something else.
However, if pizza is doable for you, that’s fine.
It’s about what works.
Morning and afternoon tea here consists of a large chopping board/serving platter where I chop up fruits, vegetables, dairy-free cheese and some gluten-free crackers or pretzels and maybe some dips.
Our children have most certainly NOT always eaten like this.
Tastes change over time. Sensory profiles change over time and fluctuate from moment to moment. None of it is fixed, despite what textbooks about autistic people will tell you.
I cut up the food into manageable, bite-sized pieces, keep it all separated as shown in the image attached and, most importantly, I make sure there is a common ingredient in each food. Usually salt, maybe a sprinkle of cinnamon, whatever is palatable and likeable.
This creates a sense of safety and consistency across foods. It helps the brain to recognise familiarity and an element of safety.
This requires, again, letting go of fears around particular foods, ingredients and salt.
During the months and years where one of the girls was seeking serious crunch, I worked with it. I served up crunch. Cereals, crackers, and threw in some crunchy raw vegetables such as carrots, capsicum and celery.
Never with expectation. Never saying a word. Never highlighting new foods.
Just adding to the regular foods and leaving it there.
Often, bringing attention to the foods can create fear, become demand pressure and once the threat response in our brain is activated, it can be extremely difficult to de-escalate.
In our home, we are mostly dairy and gluten-free. Not because we’re following a fad, but because our bodies genuinely feel bloody awful when we consume particular foods.
However, Saturday night is movie night. We all get to choose our snacks. We mostly find alternatives to dairy and gluten, but when Miss 10 who is non-speaking requests anything outside of this, she gets it. Why? Because it’s crucial to honour her communication, to allow her autonomy, to teach her boundaries and to encourage her to ask for what wants and needs.
Do we feel rotten the next day when we eat foods that aren’t right for us? Yep.
And we see this as a great learning opportunity to make different choices when we feel ready and able to.
Over the years, our children’s relationships with food and how it impacts their bodies have changed; their bodies are growing and developing wisdom that already exists and needs to be exercised like a muscle.
We are careful to be conscious of interoceptive differences, where our children may not be connecting with the feeling of hunger. But we still don’t announce “It’s lunchtime” or “time to eat!” as they will be received as demands.
We just start preparing food, announce what we’re making and wait for expressions of interest.
Sometimes, asking what a PDAer wants for breakfast is a demand. They may respond, we may serve up what they’ve asked for, and they’ll then announce they don’t want it.
This is normal behaviour for a person with a persistent drive for autonomy coupled with anxiety.
Just as when we are feeling unwell and our desire for food decreases, so does our desire for food where we are anxious, sad, joyous and this will be different from one neurodivergent person to the next.
For myself, where my body signals hunger, I feel annoyed. This is a demand.
I’m conscious that part of my demand avoidance extends to avoiding honouring my body signals, sometimes until I am unwell or in pain.
Where food is readily available without the demand of making decisions or foraging, I’ll eat.
This is also the reason I make food readily available for our children. Platters as above.
We are careful not to automatically say “NO, out of the fridge” to our children, even though we want to. The development of their choice wants, desires and autonomy, again, is crucial.
We prioritise raising neurodivergent people who are empowered, wise, confident and NOT taught to follow.
This can be extremely inconvenient for us, yes. But small investments make for healthy, happy autistic adults.
If, despite implementing all you can, your child is unwell and suffering, please know that there will be times where medical support will be important. Working with professionals will be necessary at times, and we may not have the luxury of working with someone whose practice is neuro-affirming and/or culturally sensitive and respectful in terms of neurodivergence. It’s okay to move on or to engage in respectful conversation around your boundaries and needs. It’s also helpful to access where possible an advocate.
It can also be very normal for our ND children to explore foods, and to eat with their hands. It’s important to allow this and to allow the process of safety in a relationship with food to be a priority over table manners and even sitting at the table.
Food may be thrown across the room, squished, spat out. Putting down sheets or blankets, shaking off the food outside and washing them later works a treat.
In earlier days, we created art from food. Something as small as making fruit kebabs with dipping chocolate, to gingerbread men, to creating sauce paintings on canvas.
Children NEED to be allowed to be silly and messy with food, and autistic children need to engage all of our senses to get comfortable with anything.
Of course, we have boundaries, and this will change from family to family.
It’s important to accept that our autistic children may not be ready for our food culture either. Family recipes and culturally specific foods and celebrations may be completely overwhelming.
This all takes time.
Keeping in mind that neurodivergent people are on our own timeline of development, it’s helpful to expect that eating and relationship with food takes time and is always evolving for us.
Making it known to schools and early childhood educators that our child’s lunchbox is packed in a very specific way with very specific foods is a support need, and not laziness or poor parenting is okay. Neurodivergent sensory processing and anxiety is related to our disability. Enforcing anything outside of what we can manage is discriminating and ableist. Printing off information related to this and popping it in with the lunchbox is helpful.
Do you have experience with any of the above? I’d love to hear from you.
If there are other topics you’d like to see addressed, feel free to send an email to us at [email protected]
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