Autism, Food, and Weighty Parenting Issues

As a child I struggled with food. Texture issues and a strong gag reflex made meals a chore. I didn’t even like going over to friends’ houses because I was afraid of what food they might serve.

Food at school was another challenge. In those days, we took turns bringing snacks for the class. One girl brought bananas every time, which was about every other week. On her snack day I would spend all morning unable to focus on school work, unable to think about anything else except that stupid banana. During snack I had to listen to the teacher talk about how stubborn I was for refusing to eat. Then I would be left inside all alone, staring at my uneaten banana, while the other kids went out for recess.

I still hate bananas. Even the smell gags me.

So you can imagine that when my own children had food issues I decided not to fight them with a head-on attack.

With eldest, that strategy has worked well. We don’t indulge her whims, but don’t make it an issue if she doesn’t eat something. She won’t get a dessert and might go hungry, but I do not belong to the “Clean plate club” or put her leftovers in the fridge for breakfast. On her own, she has begun to try more foods and doesn’t get too stressed out about eating.

But I seem to have created a monster in my other child. Rachel has definite texture and taste issues, along with a powerful gag reflex, which are common in autism. Growing was even a problem for her a few years ago. At age three she still wore 18-month-sized clothes and was at the very bottom of the growth chart. Starting a gluten-free diet made finding food for her even more impossible. I thought she would stay tiny forever.

Today, though, Rachel is at the other end of the growth chart. She has found a few foods, including peanut butter, she will eat. We are faced with a weight issue and I’m not sure what to do about it. Unlike eldest who has adapted to eating more and more foods, Rachel has trained me to feed her what she wants.

I’m not saying Rachel eats junk all the time, but some of the foods she likes are high in fat. I’ve been afraid to rock the boat based on my own childhood issues and on the fact that any fight with Rachel is often like an Olympic triathlon of tantrums and can last for months. I try to pick battles I can win. This is one I am too chicken to even try, and I know the winning will cost me a lot, possibly my sanity. I feel defeated and I haven’t even started yet.

While discussing this with another mom of a special needs child, she pointed out that a battle with food is probably easier than having Rachel develop childhood diabetes due to her weight. She said, “You think fighting about food is bad. Try checking her blood sugar and giving her insulin shots multiple times a day.”

Good. Point.

So, I am putting on my big girl pants and praying for wisdom, understanding, grace and stamina. Hubby and I are also being more proactive in getting her outside to play, bike and walk.

Have you had similar battles with your kids? How did you break through?

Have you had similar battles with your kids? How did you break through?

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11 thoughts on “Autism, Food, and Weighty Parenting Issues

  1. At my daughter’s 5 year old appointment, they told me that my daughter needed to lose weight or she may need cholesterol medication. First, it started with her pediatrician talking directly to her and giving her the responsibility for herself. Second, the doctor said small changes have a big impact. We realized school gave two unhealthy snacks a day. With our daughter’s agreement, we changed it to one piece of fruit & one unhealthy snack. We changed a few eating habits at home and participated in more physical activities. We focused on making it fun, and giving her choices. For example, she could pick between a second serving of bread or dessert, not both. Sometimes, it helps just giving smaller serving sizes. After 3 months, the doctor was pleased with her progress and said she should be back on track by her 6 year old appointment. I hope some of this helps you. Praying that God gives you the strength. In our weakness, He is strong!!!

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  2. We pretty much do the same with our boys. They have to try a few bites of whatever is served at mealtime. If they choose not to, then there are no snacks later. I have one son with severe food allergies – dairy, eggs and nuts. He is actually a more adventurous eater than his older brother who can eat anything. Have you thought of offering some sort of reward when your daughter eats something new or chooses a healthier snack? Maybe if the whole family celebrates in a special way at the end of a “new food week” it could work. Keep working at it. One day she may thank you and find out she really enjoys all those new foods. Someone I know told her child, “before you tried a donut, you didn’t know you liked donuts!”

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    • I love that about donuts. Too true! I like that idea to celebrate new foods. Rachel’s therapist has been working with her to eat better foods like apples and pears. We have worked on portion sizes, too, and are trying to encourage more movement. Thanks for your encouragement and great information.

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  3. I have 2 boys with autism and food issues. One with specific textures issues who will eat veggies and one who only wants fruit, bread and pasta. At dinner I serve at least one thing I know they’ll eat, one veggie they might eat and one thing they prob won’t eat. To get seconds of favorite foods, they must at least TRY the unwanted foods. The one who eats veggies is usually required to eat part or all veggies I know he’s eaten before. This way they don’t go hungry and trying unwanted foods is rewarded. I also let my 3 year old play with his food, like they do in food therapy. We still have a ways to go, and I baby the youngest too much but we’re getting there!

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    • Great suggestions, Becky! I appreciate you sharing with us.
      I try to do this too–having something on the table I know Rachel might eat. I was getting more confident with getting her to eat food, but now she tries to hide in the closet during all meal times. I think it’s like a dance, right? Forward and backward, but keeping in mind each little thing is a step in the right direction.

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  4. God bless you, you are not alone! My 5 year old has autism, O.C.D. and A.D.H.D. as well, but our food battles started long before his regression into autism. Until age 4 he was a steroid dependent asthmatic. The steroids made him eat, and eat…and eat. He was so bloated and obese at one point I was publicly confronted in grocery stores and criticized for his diet. I would explain that his diet wasn’t the problem, his medicine was and since he couldn’t breathe without it, I had no choice. We also went Gluten free at one point, but I couldn’t control his diet everywhere, I tried to get everyone on the same page but it never lasted more than a day or two. I finally got him off of the all the steroids with lots of prayer which led to me finding a way to convert my home to chemical free and non-toxic products wherever possible (all the specialists said he’d be steroid dependent for the rest of his life). He is still off all asthma meds but the weight was still there and by then he had horrible eating habits. Instead of saying “I’m bored” or sad or angry, he said “I’m hungry”. Finally, his child development specialist started him on a stimulant medication for A.D.H.D. that suppresses his appetite. I am taking this opportunity to reestablish his favorite foods…well I’m trying to, anyway. We still have some bad days, but not as many and I can usually offer him a healthier snack than whatever he is obsessing over and we eventually meet somewhere in the middle. Even if that means me saying “OK, you can have a chocolate Popsicle after you take your bath like a big boy.” (Baths are torture) If he takes his bath well, I am so, so, so very happy to give him one chocolate Popsicle! He is finally a healthy weight and size (for the first time since infancy)! I offer lots of fruit for snacks and cook healthy meals that focus on his favorites. His favorite junk foods are only given as rewards or on special occasions and even then, only after meals, portions are limited and he can only have one serving.
    I say all of this only in hopes that it helps someone in some way. I think it is so very important to remember that every child is different, and even more so in children with special needs. I have learned to think outside the box and try to put myself in his shoes whenever I am searching for solutions. I remind myself that even if I don’t know how or why…I DO know my children, and I know them better than any Doctor, therapist or teacher. I have accepted that I will not win all the battles of Autism so I choose them carefully and usually only one at a time. I focus on not only new habits and routines but getting really good at new skills before moving on to our next and adapting as his needs change. I stick with what works like giving him simple choices, Rewards, Rewards, Rewards & Happy cheerful praise! (Let me know if you need to borrow some pompoms, lol). I know I lean on our Lord every day and that through Him…Anything is possible. I am blessed by my children and better because of them. I know God has given me the tools to be the best mother, advocate, teacher, cheerleader, and so much more for them. My church family is so amazing and supportive and we are all better because of their support.

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    • Cristy,
      Thanks so much for your thoughtful and information-packed comment! What a blessing to hear your story and to see hope on the other side of all these battles. I think it’s one tiny step at a time. I need to get better at managing Rachel’s foods. I hope each day I will get better. Thanks again!

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  5. Rachel has come so far. I was impressed with how calm you dealt with a behavior change last night. Changes don’t come at once, especially with an autistic child. Your calm firmness helped Rachel not to have a complete meltdown. Her disappointment was evident, but not to the degree it has been in the past. Keep up the good work. Rome wasn’t built in a day. Eating issues with texture and taste weren’t even on the radar when you were a child, much less gluten intolerance.

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  6. I seem to remember a proud moment when I was able to get a picky eater to eat carrots and celery! It helped that a dog was involved… you’ll have to think it thru very carefully, but maybe…

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