We’ve talked about SPD (sensory processing disorder) before – a few times, actually. The Engineer was diagnosed with SPD at 3 years old so we’ve lived with it for a while. Once we got past the initial seeking/aversion flurry of information, we realized that one of the unexpected side-effects of SPD can be food issues. And boy, oh boy, do we have food issues.
I’m pretty sure that it’s genetic. After all, the Engineer is Mr. Genius’ son: the man who, around the age of 4 decided that he wouldn’t eat beans because his teenage aunt hated them. No specific type of beans, just beans in general. And it stuck – he’s considerably past the age of 4 now, and still won’t eat beans. He also won’t eat anything with “meat juice,” and after 13 years of marriage I’m still not quite sure what that means. A year ago he finally mentioned that he hated my scrambled eggs because they were too watery (he lived with it for 12 years! How’s that for stoic?) and I scrambled to figure out why they were watery (don’t add milk, it curdles and separates.)
Of course, in all fairness, I’m the child grown-to-adult who still can’t stand mushrooms because they squeak on my teeth. And kidney beans are just nasty because their skin is scratchy. Don’t get me started on collard greens, the staple of the South and the most disgusting, slimy, bitter things that I have ever eaten.
So I think we can’t really blame the Engineer for his food aversions: he comes by them naturally.
After a while though, his pediatrician starts to sigh. “How’s his diet,” they’ll ask, knowing the answer before I even open my mouth. I sigh too: “he still won’t eat vegetables. Nothing green. And only processed chicken nuggets.” It’s a depressing list of things that children should not be eating. What are you supposed to do when your kid gags because he put a pea in his mouth? When he vomits because he ate a tiny floret of broccoli?
Having the SPD diagnosis helped me realize that he wasn’t just being picky. He really can’t stand the textures, tastes, and sight of certain foods. There for a while his diet was extremely limited to fruits, breads, and cheese, and that was ok because it helped his stress levels come down.
Now that we know that he’s not being picky in a controlling way, we’ve modified our parenting techniques to help him learn to cope. Note I said cope – as with his other SPD issues, we’re not content to simply avoid things. We push boundaries in a gentle way so that he can learn to adapt and grow comfortable with things that are difficult for him. Our mindset is the most important thing: this isn’t a battle of wills. It’s an inability to tolerate overwhelming sensory input that just happens to also be food.
Here are a few things that we’ve implemented that have really helped the Engineer grow and cope. We’re consistent, brutally so in some ways, so that the Engineer (and our other two kids) know what to expect. Mr. Genius and I both enforce the rules and that makes a huge difference. If both parents are in a team that supports each other, the kids know they can’t manipulate one into relenting on the treat rules.
1. Try it – once.
At first, that started out as a taste. Put it on your tongue and see if you like it. Then we graduated to a bite. One bite, chewed and swallowed. Once we managed that consistently, we moved on to a few bites. And we picked our battles. Once he tried something a few times and had the same reaction, we stopped giving it to him. I won’t eat mushrooms, so why would I expect my child to eat something he’s firmly decided he hates?
2.No dinner, no treat.
We don’t use the rigid “eat what I put in front of you” rule any more. The Engineer will cheerfully starve himself to avoid eating certain foods. He’ll be grumpy about it, and his sense of fairness is hugely violated, but he’ll avoid the aversion food in any way possible. So we changed things up to the no treat rule. If you don’t eat most of your entrée (fruit, bread, and yogurt doesn’t count) then you don’t get a treat at the end of the meal. Kid doesn’t go to bed hungry, or hugely upset over unfair parents. He makes that choice for himself.
3. Dippers cover a multitude of sins.
Ranch dressing, ketchup, and BBQ sauce help him overcome the tastes he can’t stand. He finally decided corn was edible after we doused it in ketchup. Dippers help mask the taste, but do nothing for the texture aversions. You might say we’re pandering to him, or you could say we’re helping him to problem solve.
4. The Illusion of Choice
I started putting food on the table so that the kids could serve themselves, even the 2 year-old. It’s the same food that I plopped into their plates, but somehow it’s different if they pick it out. Kid psychology 101 I guess. Of course, that bred a different battle. You take it, you eat it, or no more food until you eat what you served yourself. The Princess gets greedy and fills her plate, then realizes that she can’t possibly eat all of it.
5. Happy Tummy?
We have major issues with the Engineer feeling like he needs to eat everything just because it’s there. We’ve been trying to teach him to recognize when his body is full, when it’s hungry, and when to stop eating. So we say, “is your tummy happy?” If it is, stop eating. If not, have another serving. And if the kid just ate a full plate of food, I’ll make him sit for a few minutes to “listen to his tummy” and see if the brain catches up before he tries to stuff himself. No “Clean your plate” around here: we take less to start with, and go back for seconds if we’re still hungry.
Either it’s working, or he’s growing up and maturing. He loves eating cheeseburgers now when a year ago he wouldn’t eat beef at all. He thinks pizza is the greatest thing ever (pineapple, pepperoni, and ham together, yum?) He’ll eat corn reluctantly, and thinks cooked carrots are yummy. Crunchy things are ok now where they used to cause tears. He’ll even eat the potato soup, but it has to be liberally topped with cheese and crackers. We’re making progress.
His pediatrician thinks I should sneak the veggies into things like spaghetti sauce or pizza. I’m reluctant to do that because it feels deceitful, plus I want him to realize that veggies are great all on their own. For now, I’m managing the texture issues by pureeing things. He won’t fuss over celery and onion in the soup if he doesn’t have to crunch on it. Make it small enough, and he’s ok with the flavor. I’ll take it. It’s more flexibility that I’m used to having.
Maybe one day he’ll eat a salad. Something green. I have hope.
I don’t expect he will ever eat broccoli. And that’s ok. I was over 20 before I stopped gagging on broccoli.