We often see photos and TV images of a happy, stress free family all sitting around a table sharing and enjoying a meal that a celebrity chef seems to have produced. For many families having an autistic family member can make mealtimes anything but this sugar-coated fantasy.
Research suggests that between 46 and 89 percent of autistic individuals have food selectivity. Sometimes this can be because of the texture of food, avoiding change and trying new or different foods, issues with eating utensils, etc.
Here at I AM we often get asked about how to make mealtimes more relaxed occasions. Here are a few things that might help
Plan mealtimes – if you know these are likely to induce stress plan the mealtimes well in advance so that the individual knows when they are going to happen. Consistency is key here to try and keep the same routines. Maybe utilise activities before mealtimes that you know are relaxing. Try to keep anxiety levels low in the run up to mealtimes, this includes your own as well as the individual’s. Let the individual know in advance what food is being planned. Discuss weekly meal planning in advance such as before you go shopping.
Realistic expectations – Have realistic expectations about how long you might expect the individual to join in a family meal. You know the individual best so make sure this is very achievable. In fact, it is better to set the bar a bit lower than you know they might be able to achieve. It is far, far better to have a success that you can praise than creating a situation that will potentially cause an outburst or stress. This could be as little as 30 seconds. A timer might even be effective. No matter how short it is this gives you a baseline to gradually work up from. Make sure that the environment is comfortable and suitable. If the environment is profoundly uncomfortable you can appreciate why an individual that is hypersensitive may feel they need to remove themselves from that environment.
Introduce new things slowly – some of us love trying new things others not so much. If you are introducing something new add it alongside, in a very small amount, to something that you know the individual already likes. You might want to try variations of the “same”. For example, if the individual only likes one brand of a product you could introduce the same food but a different brand. Or you might want to start putting “branded foods” into generic containers. It might take a significant number of “exposures” to the new thing before you see any progress so there is a great need to be patient. Also be consistent whilst it is tempting to offer lots of new things it might be more effective to offer one new thing, with multiple exposures, before moving on to something else.
Getting “hands on” with food – encouraging participation in food preparation can be a good way to engage with the individual to touch and handle new or different foods without the pressure of having to eat them. Different textures can become more familiar over time and they may choose to want to try food that they have been involved in preparing. Many of I AM’s members are great cooks!
Shift the focus – during mealtimes try not to focus on whether or not the individual is eating. Talk about other subjects, or discuss the food, its taste, texture, look, etc. but not in a way that puts pressure on them to eat, instead just as normal conversation. Interestingly at I AM when we go out and about with our groups, especially on our days out, we often find that individuals have few problems with mealtimes when they are surrounded by their peers and the focus is on other things.
Ignore the hype – there seems to be not a day that goes by that there isn’t some new food fad, miracle cure all or other media storm about food. The best place to discuss a potential diet change or concerns about nutrition is your GP. They can also refer you to a nutritionist for additional support and help.
It may be that mealtimes never quite get to the glowing image that we see portrayed in the media, but you know what, that’s ok. It is simply about finding a way that works for you. Trying to live up to other people’s expectations is a road that is littered with potholes of frustration. So long as everyone is happy and healthy at the end of the day that is all that really matters.