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Why I Put Chicken Nuggets On My Head as an OT

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In my time as a pediatric occupational therapist, I’ve come to learn that fun is everything. It did not take me long to recognize that my success rate in getting therapeutic benefit out of an activity is directly correlated to how fun I make it. Will my patient sit still and complete 10 reps with an arm weight? No. Will he complete a challenge on the rock wall to climb to the top? Absolutely. Since starting to see an increased caseload of children with feeding disorders, I’ve come to realize that when it comes to feeding therapy, fun is not only beneficial, but completely necessary.

Eating is one of the only activities in which we use all of our senses at once, so naturally children with sensory processing disorder are going to have a harder time. To my kids with an oversensitive sensory system, food may look, sound, smell, feel or taste offensive. Over the years, I have tried to literally put myself in the body of a patient with sensory processing deficits — if the touch, smell or even the sight of different textures entered my overly sensitive sensory system, my body might respond to a chicken nugget like it would spoiled milk! Gagging, spitting it out, throwing it; altogether refusing to interact with it. The behavioral responses I may naturally engage in would be responses such as refusal, crying, throwing the food or running away.

If I were a child who had sensory processing deficits causing certain foods to be too much for my body to handle, wouldn’t I try to get out of mealtime, too?

Because I try to intimately understand that many of my patients have legitimate sensory processing difficulties they are working against at meal time, I can more easily move forward in helping them become more comfortable with food. I have to change their assaulter into their friend. I have to make food fun. Herein lies the most important part of feeding therapy I have realized, the best piece of advice I have to offer to parents and professionals: if we want to teach our picky eaters to eat, we must decrease the anxiety around food and mealtime first. We have to play.

Eating is not my first goal, positive interaction with food is.

I put the chicken nugget on my head. Uh oh, it’s about to fall, here it goes! Ahhhhhh! Crashhh! Instantly, according to this 2-year-old, I am the most fun person in the world with the source of the fun being the food they won’t eat. But they’ll play with it. They’ll put the chicken nugget on my head, touching it, feeling it, getting crumbs on their fingers, smelling it, waiting for it to fall. They’ll squish it to see what it would do in their mouth; they’ll learn all about it. But more importantly they will laugh, play and enjoy themselves. Suddenly this food isn’t so scary!

Feeding therapy is a slow progression but it absolutely has to revolve around play. Kids need to explore, play, get messy and learn about new foods before they can ever eat them. Only when our kids are comfortable and their body has gotten desensitized to the novelty or to the threatening texture will they ever gain any ground in expanding their diet.

So, that is why as an OT, I have had a chicken nugget in a ball tower, in the bed of a toy truck, in a toy dinosaur’s mouth, on a fire truck’s ladder, in a dog’s food bowl, in a race car, on top of a block tower… and on my head. And I wouldn’t have it any other way.

A version of this story originally appeared on Crane Rehab Center.

FollowRebecca Connick at Finger Tips.

Getty image by Sladic

Originally published: November 1, 2018
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