My 7-year-old son starts his day with at least three bowls of hearty, nutritious oatmeal before his portioned school breakfast and recommended lunch. The rest of his meals on a typical day are: two after-school snacks, more oatmeal, Special K cereal and yogurt and then dinner with the family.
One of my son’s favorite meals are Southern fried chicken, macaroni and cheese, cornbread and broccoli. He’s only allowed that dinner once a month; the rest of the time, he has baked or grilled chicken. Other favorites are salmon, turkey spaghetti, my mother’s meatloaf, tilapia and of course, McDonald’s happy meals.
People are always surprised at the amount of food he can consume. At times, he eats more than his father, and at least the equivalent of his brothers — both in their twenties. At first glance he would appear greedy, especially if you also consider the speed at which he eats, usually rushing as if he’s about to lose his turn on the Wii. What 7-year-old devours this amount of food?
The best answer we’ve come up with is that it’s a side effect of the medication he takes for his triple diagnosis: autism, oppositional defiant disorder (ODD) and attention deficit disorder (ADHD). What his doctor later told me was a trifecta diagnosis. At 2 years, 9 months old, when he was first diagnosed with autism, I remember refusing all medication. I thought he was too young and that pills were too much. For one, I was afraid of the side effects and wondered what would be needed in the future if medication was the best option at that time. He was a baby, a toddler at best. A writer friend of mine said, “If he had diabetes, would you deny him insulin?”
Her simple question resonated with me. She had a son who suffered from mental illness. She’d advocated for him all his life so I trusted her opinion. While I wasn’t certain what category my son’s diagnosis fell under, I was assured by his developmental pediatrician that the medication were necessary and would help. I eventually agreed to the prescription but hoped the ABA therapy would ultimately be what allowed him to be rid of the drugs. Every child reacts differently to medication and lab work became routine. My son never gained weight, a very common concern and side effect of some of the medication, nor was he underweight. He was always right where he should be — a healthy, average kid.
As a child, I was thin, lean with long legs. I enjoyed a fast-burning metabolism and could eat just about anything. Now, I didn’t eat at the rate of my son, or 8-year-old daughter for that matter, nor did I take medication. I did, however, eat more than my parents, and was constantly asked where did I put my food. Perhaps, my son is just eating what his body requires and the medication kicks it up a notch.
The problematic component to this is that to most people who can’t take the time to know him see him as greedy, picky and demanding. It is not fathomable to the average adult that a child can consume this much food. They often have to witness it to believe it, and see that he really is hungry. And, on more than one occasion, to verify that we have not starved him for effect.
This is how oatmeal became the breakfast of choice. It usually fills you up and it is cost-effective. Yet, even with a low-cost start to the day, the money adds up in feeding the equivalent of a teenaged football player with a picky diet. My son would much prefer to have several bowls of Special K, his favorite cereal for the time being, with just enough milk to cover but not too much to make it where the cereal doesn’t crunch as he hums while he eats each bowl.
When there’s more time, like on weekends, he requests pancakes with bacon and eggs after at least two bowls of cereal or on rare occasions when we will have french toast. For the most part, he likes to eat the same thing every day until he decides he doesn’t like that thing anymore and moves onto the next item of choice. I try to get him to eat fresh fruit but that’s a real struggle. He will eat strawberries and grapes, but counts out how many he will bite and swallow. Sometimes we compromise on fruit in his yogurt. Luckily, with some coaching and modeling, my son’s food choices have become healthier. The two of us have come a long way with food.
I’m no expert on autism, oppositional defiant disorder or attention deficit disorder, but I am an expert on my son — he’s hungry. But this also doesn’t discount his from being a typical 7-year-old boy who on some days will be greedy simply because he wants something extra, his eyes are bigger than his stomach or just because, well, he’s a kid.
I work with him on quiet bites at the table knowing that everyone won’t appreciate his musical renderings of “Everything Is Awesome,” “Wanted Dead or Alive” and “There Goes My Baby.” And I remind him about proper etiquette while eating, except his lessons aren’t over at a specified age, as they were with my other children; these lessons can happen daily when your child processes information in an alternate way.
Parents know about patience. What I’m saying is not new. But when your child faces additional challenges, you are also prompted on the resilience inside of you. So the next time you see or hear of a child eating more than what you think is his/her fair share of a meal, don’t assume greed. Consider the possibility that they might just be hungry.
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