Dinnertime, Autism, and the Reality of my Not-Picture-Perfect Life
Just after Rachel (my daughter on the autism spectrum) turned two, she started climbing on the dining room table. Once standing on the surface, she would stomp around and boogie. And she didn’t stop at my table. She climbed and danced on every table she saw, which made most outings … memorable.
Each time, I would walk over, pick her up and put her on the floor, and tell her “no.” But she would climb right back up. We fought this battle for at least two years.
So, with her love of tables, one would assume meals were a fun and pleasant family gathering time.
Anytime I set the table, Rachel might or might not grab her food and hide, preferring to eat in a closet or behind the couch. I still don’t know why. We didn’t model that kind of behavior, but … I never danced on any tables, either.
Add to that Rachel’s exhaustive list of food allergies and aversions. I morphed into one unhappy mama. Mealtimes loomed like dark clouds on my daily horizon. I couldn’t figure out what to cook, and I usually choked it down just so I didn’t have to sit amid the chaos of Rachel running, climbing on the table, and screaming about what to eat/not to eat.
But we, with the help of our therapists, persevered. One day, around the time Rachel turned five, the most amazing thing happened. It was a gift from God, a ray of sunshine through the clouds. While we bowed our heads to pray, I glanced at Rachel, on the couch about 10 feet away. Her head was bowed and her hands were clasped.
That was one of the only times I’ve seen her do that, but it was enough to encourage me.
Since that day four years ago, Rachel has stopped dancing on the table, but she doesn’t always sit with us. I have, though, learned a few tricks that might help others:
- I keep my eyes on one goal at a time. Is my goal to have her at the table or to eat certain foods? With Rachel it cannot be both. My current goal is still to have her sit with us. I save the food trials for other times of the day.
- In light of my above goal, I make her a plate–the same kind on which I eat. If I am worried she will break it, I use a plastic plate for both of us–that way she does not feel singled out.
- I put a small spoonful of what the family is eating on her plate. This helps familiarize her to other foods, but I do not fight with her about eating it. (Our dog sits right by her …) I also include a nice portion of food she likes (grapes, cheese sticks, or thinly sliced turkey). I am not working on forcing her to eat what we are eating–yet. That day will come. You will probably hear us both crying when that starts …
- We invite her to the table. She doesn’t always come, but she always has a place set. Over the last year, she has started joining us almost all the time. I’ve tried to make it mandatory, but it can become a fight that exhausts us all and ruins dinner for the rest of the family. I have to balance their needs with her needs. When Rachel chooses to join us, it seems like she is proud to be sitting there, though. The exceptions are when we have other guests. Sometimes the noise overwhelms her, but she rarely avoids dinner any longer.
- I sometimes have something sensory for Rachel to do at the table. A container of playdoh, markers, her iPad, or some other fidget toy she enjoys. (I know, electronics at the table are often seen as poor manners, but sometimes I make an exception for Rachel. It is better to play with an iPad than to dump the table over …)
- I let her help me prepare food. She loves to watch and work the mixer. She loves to scramble eggs by hand and stir. Anything she can do to help prepare the food increases her curiosity about it. That doesn’t mean she will eat it, but she enjoys the prep. It is messy and some days I have to chew the inside of my cheeks raw to keep from throwing my own tantrums about things not being done my way, but I have to look at the bigger picture.
In light of #6, I wanted to share with you a meal Rachel has helped me prepare. She had a blast–she didn’t eat it, but she loved making it.
• Ranch mashed potatoes
• Pancakes (I use the directions on the back of gluten-free mixes).
• Scrambled eggs
• Mandarin orange wedges
For the potatoes:
1. Peel and cut up 4 golden or Russet potatoes. Boil in water until soft.
2. Put hot boiled potatoes in mixing bowl. Add about 2 Tablespoons butter, 1/2 cup sour cream (or plain Greek yogurt), and half a package of Ranch salad dressing and dip powder.
3. Mix. Add a few splashes of milk, if necessary, until you get to the desired consistency. (Rachel likes to watch them mix in my stand mixer, but she also likes to stir them by hand.)
4. If you have a frosting piping bag, scoop potatoes into the bag. (If not, you can use a freezer-strength plastic baggie after the potatoes have cooled a bit.) Pipe them onto a plate,using other food items as accents. Make a face or other decorations. Or let your child make their own designs. It’s fun either way. And the Ranch powder adds a nice flavor to the potatoes that my other child loves.
Remember, have fun. Laugh often. And cover each MOMent with prayer.