I encountered my first “picky eater” about 30 years ago. Marcia was an aggressive 10-year-old girl with severe autism. Life with physically aggressive Maria was challenging for the family and the entire school staff. Kicking, biting, and hollering were among her favorite activities.
She would eat only hamburger, yogurt, or ice cream. Ever.
Everyone involved with her case knew it was not healthful. Yet, any attempt to broaden the diet resulted in refusal or a meltdown. As the school psychologist assigned to her case, I suspected that her diet, particularly the emphasis on dairy, could be playing a role in her negative behaviors.
The only reason diet as a causative factor occurred to me was that a new book had just been published (1987) Fighting for Tony. This is was a ground breaking (and heart breaking) look at raising a young boy with severe autism and eventually discovering that for him, a cerebral allergy to dairy was the key issue. Tony’s mother described the devastating journey of her family and the final outcome: a normal child and a marriage that miraculously survived.
(Published Weekly — 1987) When Callahan’s son Tony was diagnosed with autism at age two, she struggled to understand the condition about which little is known and worked tirelessly to help him improve. Her story takes us through Tony’s early years, which included many bouts of screaming for nine hours at a time, head-banging, staring and generally nonresponsive behavior. This account about raising a difficult handicapped child stands out because of its honesty in discussing often ugly feelings. Callahan and her husband experienced extreme guilt, anger and shame, and for one harrowing moment they contemplated killing the boy. By age five, Tony began leading a normal life, and Callahan, a registered nurse, came to believe that a cerebral allergy to cow’s milk may have caused Tony’s autistic behavior and may account for autism in others.
No one on Marcia’s intervention team was interested in my suggestion that perhaps Marcia was allergic or intolerant to the milk she so strongly craved. And I could not blame them! It was a new concept, and I had no way of knowing if there was a connection for Marcia. Nor did I know how her parents would be able to implement change without receiving even more bites or bruises. Yet I never forgot her or the book.
Since that time, a great deal more has been learned about food intolerance and how it can result in certain behaviors. Picky–or selective–eating is common within the autism population, and Marcia’s severe habits were at the far end of the spectrum.
Meanwhile, millions of kids, with or without autism, also exhibit restrictive eating habits. What follows are suggestions for dealing with more typical food aversion.
Beyond food allergy: When eating habits are learned
It is worth evaluating your situation to see whether an eating pattern you are dealing with is due, at least in part, to learned behavior. Review the tips below to see what might help with a case that concerns you.
Some food aversion issues are genetically wired, and they can also be due to hypersensitivity to sensory issues. The texture, smell, or even the sight of foods may cause aversion. Are the foods “touching” on the plate and that bothers the eater? Are you offering too many foods at once? Are they distracted by TV or their phone or tablets while food is being served? Are they simply being manipulative?
In the West, catering to a child with demanding eating habits is a growing trend that is often reinforced by parents and society.
Restaurants frequently offer a “kids’ menu” with a focus on items like French fries, mac-n-cheese, buttered pasta, grilled cheese on white bread, chicken nuggets, and cheese pizza. How did this become the norm, rather than just smaller sizes of an adult selection?
It is difficult to convince your child to eat more nutritious, colorful and fresh items when these kid-favorites are offered. And it makes it very difficult when gluten and/or dairy need to be avoided.
At home, many parents are now in the habit of preparing separate meals for family members.Sometimes this is a requirement that revolves around food allergy or intolerance.–understood! But often, the goal is just to keep everyone happy (except the cook!). Children assume that they can put in their special order, and since parents want to be sure their kids eat something at mealtime, they go along with it.
First, consider whether you may verbally be setting an example that encourages food rejection. Observe your language about meals, either while eating at home or when eating out–or when experimenting with new foods in general.
Since there are so many causes and varying levels of concern, we recommend you review the tips below and decide what makes the most sense in your situation.
We came across an infographic that covers some key topics on dealing with picky eaters. Check it out and see if even a few of the ideas could make a positive different for you.