Wednesday, January 20, 2010

A Typical Dinner with 3 Picky Eaters on the Autism Spectrum

The last two nights as I was sitting at the dinner table with my husband and two sons, I was checking out the  eating styles of our family.  Usually we have one or two water glasses spilled per meal despite all good efforts and best intentions.

Awhile back John got smart and placed towels underneath the chairs of our boys at the kitchen table. This indeed was a valiant effort and we can proudly say that a full 28% of spills are now caught on the towels!  (Hey, it's a start!)

Here is how a typical dinner in our household would look to a casual observer:

John does all the cooking because someone (not naming names but happens to be the house female) doesn't like weird smells and textures.  More often than not, the boys are not eating the same thing as the parents. As such, John gets to prepare 2 or 3 different meals per night.  This would help him hone his cooking skills, except as you'll see, he's the only one in our family currently embracing variety.

1) John (hubby & neurotypical) eats everything on his plate as well as leftovers from everyone else. Mix, match, whatever.  It all ends up in the same place... (his philosophy)  He uses salt and sauce and doesn't care whether his food touches.

2) Karen (me, an Aspie with sensory issues) eats one plain food at a time and takes sips of water in-between. No condiments for me. From time to time, I eye John's plate to make sure no offensive smelling food will be added.  (My husband tends to like a lot of stinky stuff and my sense of smell is like a bloodhound.  He can eat salsa downstairs and I'll be ready to gag upstairs.)

Unacceptable Foods & Drinks:  Most vegetables, sauces, condiments, anything spicy, anything not plain, anything with carbonation, coffee, cocoa and tea

3) Justin (our oldest, who has Asperger's Syndrome and sensory issues) has his food separated and as usual, it will be yellow or beige, crunchy, bland or plain.  If we're lucky, a divided plate will do.  More often than not it is cheesy noodles on one plate, corn on another, cauliflower on a third.  Separate forks for each!!  Should any of his foods accidentally touch or should there not be the right amount of cheese on each noodle, that portion of food would be "ruined" for the rest of the meal.  In fact, his whole meal might be ruined. 

Acceptable Foods for Justin:  Pizza (Pepperoni only - won't eat crust), McDonald's Chicken McNuggets (only brand), Dad's Cheesy Noodles, his Gram's Macaroni & Cheese, chips, Cheetos, Rice Cakes, Pretzels, baby carrots, apple, Old Spaghetti Factory spaghetti with mizithra cheese, Olive Garden breadsticks, white rice, toast cut into 4 equal triangles (but he won't eat the crust) Cheez-Its, M & Ms, chocolate ice cream.

Unacceptable Foods: Almost everything else, especially if it is a meat, sauce or is non bland.

4) Ryan (our youngest, who has autism and sensory issues) is sticking his hand in his water glass and pulling out ice to eat with his hands. Occasionally he picks up a fork, tries to stick it in some corn or other food item and pretend to eat.  Then he goes back to eating ice chips. Occasionally he will touch another food, sniff it or lick it and if it isn't to his taste, scream "YUCKY!!!!!!!!" and throw the food or plate across the table.  Ryan's aim is quite accurate and more often than not, the offending food item lands on John's plate.  To my chagrin and Justin's, John subsequently eats the "YUCKY" food.  Ryan giggles.

Acceptable Foods for Ryan:  It used to be almost anything so long as it wasn't hot, too warm or had fat on it.  In the past couple of months, he has gone from eating a variety of foods to not wanting to eat at all.

Unfortunately, Ryan is very oral and is always trying to place inanimate objects in his mouth instead of food. We are constantly having to watch to make sure he doesn't stick something in his mouth unsafe. Chewelry sometimes helps but he has to be redirected many times per hour.


That's just a quick glimpse of a typical dinner at our table.  I plan to talk more about our odd eating habits in other blog postings but this is something I've been thinking about posting and I wanted to get it out into the blogosphere before I got distracted by something else.

When I was at a newly formed Autism Support Group meeting about a month ago at Ryan's preschool, the moderator asked what kind of topics we'd like to hear about or get help with.  One mom called out "getting my child to eat healthy foods" and every other parent except one raised her / his hand in agreement.

It seems like there are a lot of us picky eaters out there and it starts at a very young age.  I will share my own personal confessions of a picky eater in an upcoming blog because this is something I've struggled with since I was in preschool and when I was in junior high, I developed an eating disorder (compulsive overeating) which I am proud to say that I have recovered from (for the most part) but still deal with daily since after all, food is one of those things we need to stay alive!
If you feel like sharing (anonymously is cool too) , what have your experiences been with eating and food variance?  Are you or your child on the spectrum a picky eater?  What has been successful for you in trying to introduce new foods?


  1. Oh, boy. I could fill a book with the eating problems. But it looks like you could fill THREE books! My son (5 yrs old) has eating issues. He just doesn't care about food. He had terrible acid reflux as an infant. Has it now, but not so bad. Lots of oral texture issues. Lots of taste issues. Transitioning to baby food and to solid food took a long, long time. Can't switch brands on the foods he does like. I also struggle with putting weight on him as he started out tiny (5 lbs) and needs every pound he can get.

    I am lucky that he now eats a good variety of food and is always willing to try new foods, even if he won't eat them. We never made eating an issue with him, though it was a huge issue in my mind. We also struggle with fine motor skills and he is still unable to feed himself.

    This is a big issue! Thanks for bringing it up!

  2. Hi Brenda,

    Thanks so much for your comments! I'm always interested to hear what it's like for other parents who are challenged at the dinner table with their children! I try to look at our situation with humor. (It's easier to do so at our home than if we were to say... venture out to a crowded restaurant!)

    It sounds like you were wise to not make eating an issue with your son as his flexibility in trying new foods is a really positive trait! I understand how it was / is a big issue in your mind because you want him to be healthy and get the right nutrition! Your unconditional love is the best nutritional supplement! I hope your son will continue to prosper! :-)

  3. Well my AS husband would eat the same meal everyday, come rain, hail or shine, steak/chops , potato and maybe a veg, usually peas. Then he has to turn the pepper grinder 15 times, *I always count it) this is before he has tasted his food and it had to be black pepper. He has bags of the stuff in the cupboard.

    I can't sit at the table to eat with him, his manners are repulsive, he almost puts the entire plate of food into his mouth at the onetime.

    Rotating the plate in another trait, seems he cant reach across the plate, has to keep turning to reach the particular food he wants.Oh and only eating one meal a day, but I reckon this is because he can't be bothered and I won't do it for him!!!!!!!!

  4. This brings back so many memories! I used to be very much like your kids when I was their age. My food palette was VERY limited, and I had no rational reason for not wanting to eat so many things. Later in early adulthood, it was often joked that I wouldn't eat things with more than 3 ingredients (we always ordered some to go lunch for everyone at work.)

    At some point after I turned 25, I decided to start trying some new things, even though they were quite repulsive to me (like the creamy texture of a soft taco, versus a hard shell taco.) Then I was almost *forced* to try new things because I had to go on a diet. That triggered a new found love for vegetables. Then I found myself cooking in a restaurant almost by complete chance just a few years ago!

    Things didn't work out in the restuarant, but it triggered a love for food in me that was unimaginable at one point in time. As a result of that experience, I am actively working on going back to school to major in dietetics, and hope to work with others on the spectrum to sort out dietary issues that can make symptoms worse. I've done a complete 180 since last fall when I cleaned up my diet by cutting out gluten, sugar, and refined carbs.

  5. Hello and Happy Easter!

    I see I missed acknowledging a post on February 21st of 2010. I do my best to try and comment on all comments but I am sorry for missing this one. To my anonymous poster, I can understand that it must be frustrating watching someone eat the same things a very specific way and in a way which sounds like it has ties with OCD which is a common co-condition with Asperger's and autism. I'm not sure if you'll ever get back to my blog to see this, but if so, I'm curious if there has been any positive change this past year? I have a support group and author I'd like to refer you to for spouses with autism spectrum partners.

    Best wishes on your journey and in support of your husband's journey,

  6. Hi Ersht,
    Thanks so much for stopping by and sharing your comments on my blog! I know I eat much more variety than I did many years ago but I haven't quite gotten to the same point as you with vegetables yet. Maybe there is still hope for me! :-)

    How cool that are going back to school and majoring in dietetics with the intent on helping those on the autism spectrum with food challenges. I go to support group meetings periodically and this is one of the most common concerns that parents bring up regarding their children.

    We have contemplated trying to go gluten-free but as of now are just trying to focus on gluten-reduced. I would be interested to know what changes you noticed within yourself and how long it took after switching your diet.

    I hope you will visit Aspierations again! I'm interested to hear your take on what can make symptoms worse.