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What to Keep in Mind If an Autistic Person Is a 'Fussy Eater'

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One thing I don’t intend to do — whether I’m posting on my own blog or other sites — is write much about my children and their behavior.

As an adult-diagnosed autistic woman, the primary goal of writing is to provide a catharsis for myself and to share my experiences with others. When my children are old enough, and independent enough, they’ll be able to choose whether or not to share their own lives with the rest of the world, and I’ll provide support and guidance to help them do so as safely as possible. But in the meantime, I need to respect their privacy and their personhood and avoid abusing my responsibilities as their adult caregiver.

I am, however, still a parent, and that means that at times, like all parents, I can get frustrated by my children’s behavior — no matter how much I might be able to empathize and understand where they’re coming from. Mealtime would be one of those times. Oh yes, we have some battles on our hands.

Many autistic people have issues with food. I am not really one of them. I love food. I see it as one of life’s great sensory pleasures. I enjoy complexities of flavor, color and texture. I can detect in a dish the subtleties of small amounts of ingredients that others don’t notice. I’m fascinated by the way certain flavor combinations really convey the essence of a particular cuisine or culture. I love experimenting with flavors and ingredients in cooking — this is one of the few times I’m truly spontaneous. I love food as a focus for social interaction. (Well, it sure cuts down on the need for small talk.)

The only food-related issue I have is with the texture of meat. I can’t stand it. So I don’t eat it.

If you experience a strong, negative sensory response to something, you tend to want to avoid it.

Until the question was raised about whether one of my children might be autistic, and I started my journey into the world of autism (discovering along the way that I, myself, am autistic), I couldn’t fathom why anyone wouldn’t want to eat. Food is wonderful, and that’s all there is to it.

My research into the condition started to change my view, and I started to think about the problem from a new perspective.

Many autistic people can experience challenges with processing sensory information or input. We get either too much or too little coming at us at once. We lack the ability to “filter” in the same way as neurotypical folks. One of my biggest struggles is with noise.

If I’m tired, it’s the first thing to grind me down. Certain unexpected noises — emergency vehicle sirens or pots and pans crashing off the kitchen draining board — can feel, quite literally, like a sudden and violent physical attack to me. Others — motorbike engines, construction noise and old, poorly-serviced air conditioning units — penetrate and jar my entire body at times when I’m already overwhelmed. And, bless him, my youngest child’s cries (and those of any baby) are always overlaid by a high-pitched, crackling, sibilant distortion that, again, can at times be painful to experience. Ordinarily I love music, but there are times when even this is something I can’t abide.

All of this is why I wear earplugs a lot, why I often have the volume down and the subtitles on when I’m watching television and why I frequently use noise-cancelling headphones at work.

Different autistic people have different sensory challenges.

And I thought to myself:

Imagine if, at least three times a day, I was required to sit still and endure, nonstop, a repeated series of ambulance sirens, pot-and-pan crashes and motor vehicle engine revs. Noises so loud and intense they felt painful. And I would not be able to leave this situation until another person told me they thought I’d had enough.

What if food did the same thing to me that noises do?

If the above example doesn’t resonate with you, think of anything that causes you extreme pain or discomfort. Would you want to sit still and endure it at least three times a day until someone else told you you’d had enough?

When I’m overloaded or overwhelmed, I want to scream, shout, flail my arms, protest or simply get up and leave. Fight or flight. Negative sensory input — and, in particular, noise — is usually the “last straw” for me; merely the culmination of a series of overwhelming events that have built up over time. It’s not just the noise; it’s the noise plus all the other stuff that came first.

And it’s the same for an autistic person who faces challenges with food. When you’re exhausted and already had a day of feeling overwhelmed, to come home and be assaulted by the pain of different textures in your mouth, the overpowering, assaulting stimulus of flavors that always seem too strong and the visual discordance of certain color combinations on your plate, it can simply get too much. And so you scream, shout, flail your arms, protest or get up and leave.

And, again, if you can’t fathom what either of these situations feel like, imagine being tired and emotionally overwhelmed after a hard day at school or work and then being subjected to a physical attack.

And this happens every day.

Several times a day.

Some kids are fussy eaters. Some adults are fussy eaters. But sometimes, the aversion to food stems from something far deeper. We need to bear this in mind when we’re at the dinner table.

Lead photo source: Thinkstock Images

Originally published: September 22, 2016
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