Marshall has taught me so much about parenting- and not just because he is my first born. Since I first found out I was pregnant with him, he has done things his own way and forced me to adapt. Though, that story is for another day.
At the age of two and a half Marshall was diagnosed with Apraxia of Speech, Autism was firmly and swiftly ruled out, but oral sensory issues were also becoming more and more apparent.
I dreaded (and often still do) eating out at restaurants with my son, sharing meals with friends and family- hell, I often just feared mealtime altogether.
Sensory issues are not the same as “picky eaters”. People don’t often know that, they only see the difficult. They see my son crying and hiding his face as my husband, exasperated, tries everything he can to get him to eat. They see the tears, the pleading, and often times- they see Marshall settling for his water, forgoing food for this round.
He’s not the only one that cries over these mealtime sessions. I’ve shed many tears out of frustration and desperation. We’ve done occupational therapy in clinics, in-home services, and through the school. At every meal I use strategies that have been taught to us, some have worked and others we have had to toss aside.
Still, I will admit, there are times that I just want him to have an ordinary experience and don’t want to suit up for the battle. At events with family and friends, don’t be surprised if you see Marshall with nothing but an empty bun on his plate. “Um, your son only has a bun!” A family member will inevitably alert me- the same family member every. single. time. “I know” I say firmly with a smile “he’s fine.”
I want to say more of course, I want to say let him be. Let him have fun, we will work on feedings at home. I want to say not to worry about him, that is my job. I want to say a lot- but my Italian brashness is out of place here.
Fact of the matter is he doesn’t just eat plain bread at every meal. He loves flavor- he can down a spinach smoothie in not time flat. It’s texture that throws him and can make him physically ill. Not just with broccoli or peas, but also candy and sweets will send him into a tailspin.
These are the strategies that we use:
1) Full Sensory Engagement
If eating food is like doing a cannonball in the deep end of the pool, with Marshall, we must dip one toe in at a time and slowly enter the water. One at a time, introducing this new food to each sense.
We first have him smell the food. “Smell how good that is? Oh my goodness that seems yummy!”
Second step to full engagement is touching it with his fingers and the palms of his hand. “Is it crispy? I wonder if it tastes like eggplant?” Relate this new food to what your child already knows, already enjoys. Set the stage for this food to be delicious and let your child know what they can expect. Only use positive descriptors.
With the next step we slow things down a bit. This is where oral sensory starts getting involved and things get more difficult. Be patient and take your time. Ask the child to kiss the food, touching it to their lips but not having to put the food into their mouth. “See! Good job, I knew you could do it! That didn’t hurt, right?” Now we are going to take it one step forward, we’re going to taste the food without really having it in our mouths. We’re going to lick the piece of food. We’re going to get a taste of how fantastic this tastes and see how we can get through it. Talk slow and soft, use team language (we will/ we can).
The last step is the obvious: take a bite. Eat it. Sounds easy enough right? Well during this time- with a child with sensory issues- you can expect crying, yelling, little clenched fists close to their face, and hyperventilating. Sometimes they get to the very end and sometimes they don’t. Sometimes you have to start over from square one with each bite.
To make Full Sensory Engagement a bit more palatable, we have enlisted Marshall’s help from the true first step: making the food.
2) Enter little Chef
We have found that when we watch shows like Master Chef Jr.; shows that feature real kids preparing, executing, and enjoying food that it motivates Marshall to want to try harder. Sometimes his oral sensory issues won’t allow him to fulfill his goal, but he at least wants to try and that is really half the battle.
So Marshall does it all, cooking like a true Italian: making it up as he goes. This morning it was French Toast. He cracked eggs, added vanilla, milk, and generous amounts of cinnamon and brown sugar.
The entire time we talk about how amazing the final product will be, how he is such a great chef, and subtlety remind him that a chef always tastes his food. Marshall loves to narrate as he cooks, which doubles as a fantastic language exercise for his Apraxia.
My husband is always so patient and kind as he steers his son through this process. Teaching him life skills most four year olds don’t know yet, in regards to cooking, but most one year olds have already mastered with eating.
For the parents that are dealing with oral sensory issues when it comes to feeding your child, I hope this helps you. I hope it helps you with techniques to try getting your child to eat and I hope it helps you feel less alone. To those who have the luck to have never had to handle this personally, I hope you learn to be patient yourself when you see these scenarios play out. Try not to judge the parents and write off the child; know that there is a lot of story behind each encounter.