Over the next few weeks, I’ll be sharing reader questions from my Positive Parenting Solutions guest blog appearance. Read all the questions and my answers here.
Q: Our biggest challenge: getting our three-year-old to eat solid food, rather than stage 3 baby food mixed with toddler ravioli or spaghetti. He is so tired of eating it, but he is too afraid of trying real people food. Breakfast is always baby food oatmeal, yogurt, and applesauce. Lunchtime is peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and yogurt. We’re hoping that one day he will eventually get over his apprehensions. We’re taking baby steps with his ABA therapist at dinnertime—Cheerio-sized chicken nuggets. He puts it in his mouth but then spits it out..
A: The drive we mothers have to feed our children is so primal. When thwarted, we cannot help but feel some sense of panic, helplessness, fear, anxiety. My own son had (still has) a very limited palette, but learned to eat a balanced if narrow diet. His childhood was nearly free of colds and viral illnesses, so we can say it worked. Your son is on his way to eating a balanced vegetarian diet — protein (peanut butter, yogurt), fruit (applesauce), grains (bread, oatmeal, pasta). These are “real people foods,” so one small step in getting him to expand his palette is to abandon language that makes him feel belittled or babyish. I always remind adults that they too have food preferences, and don’t appreciate having them second-guessed or dissed.
You’ve identified the key issue, that your son is afraid of new foods. Now, why? It’s unlikely he “will eventually get over his apprehension” without identifying and addressing the source of his fear. For many children with autism, hypersensitive taste and smell can be major impediments to eating, but so can temperature and texture. Here’s a story I love (names changed), from a mom who got her son to try new foods through tactile exploration. That’s right, playing with his food.
“After seven weeks of opportunities to explore the texture and temperature of a hardboiled egg both warm and cold, Michael asked for a one and ate the outer part of it. I’d let him play with eggs as food and as colored Easter eggs. We made a book about eggs and I cleaned up several hardboiled eggs that didn’t make it to the tasting goal. We put no pressure on him to taste the egg. He smashed an egg because he needed to feel the inedible shell along with the edible part of the egg. He was playing with the yolk, rolling tiny pieces like play dough. I put an egg on his plate. He grabbed it and ate it. Through having certain foods on his plate and allowing him to explore tactilely first, he now eats grapes, ice cream, baked potato, salad, fish, peas, corn, beans.” My own Bryce, pictured here, decided to put spaghetti in his pocket before eating it.
Observe what your son already likes and build incrementally from there, i.e. oatmeal >> soggy Cheerios >> crunchy Cheerios. Yogurt >> blended cottage cheese >> cottage cheese. Don’t fall into the trap of assuming your child will or should like certain foods just because other kids do. For instance, many children with autism don’t like meat (strong smell, chewy or stringy texture, animal-y taste, bloody or odd-shaped appearance, taste or smell of additives/sauces/condiments), so we can’t assume your little guy will like chicken nuggets not matter how popular they are with the general kid population.
If you haven’t already, have a speech therapist or doctor rule out structural issues. Your son might be having difficulties swallowing, which can induce fear of choking.
For issues involving taste and smell, an occupational therapist versed in autism can be an enormous help to you.