Jakob has always been a picky eater. For years, he would only eat four foods. Hot dogs, apple-cinnamon protein cereal, bananas and smoothies. Always a specific brand and flavor and he would never deviate. He’d smell his hot dogs every time just to make sure they were the right ones. I tried once to give him the same brand of hot dogs but they were organic instead of just antibiotic-free. He gave them a sniff and then refused to eat them. He was not happy with me that day.
I couldn’t understand why he was being so stubborn. I mean, come on, who doesn’t want to eat cake? So I would try to be sneaky. I’d walk up behind him and smudge frosting on his lips, convinced that he’d love it if he would just taste it. Bad idea. He’d scream and gag and wipe his mouth. He’d be so upset. In hindsight, what I was doing was so rude and disrespectful. And I’m sure it had a negative effect on his trust in me. I’m so sorry about that, buddy.
What I didn’t realize at the time was eating and eliminating food were truly the only two things that kiddos on the spectrum have ultimate control over. In a world that they find so overwhelming and unpredictable where everything is out of their control, what can they do to feel like they have any say-so at all in their lives? Choose what goes in their mouths and when and where (bathroom, diaper, floor, on the bed) it comes out. I know of children who refuse to poop at all and it’s a big problem.
So before I even thought about attempting to add foods to his diet, I had to get him to loosen his grip on control with foods. To accomplish that, I started to give him more control in other places and I let him make some decisions. Which way do you want to go to Target, Tylersville or Liberty Way? Do you want to wear the black sweatpants or the grey ones? What do you want to do first, wash your face or brush your teeth?
In letting him choose, it became evident that in order for him to relax his need to control, I had to relax mine. Did it really matter to me which way we went to Target? No. But it mattered to Jakob.
After months of me letting go and him loving his newfound freedom and power, I began to consider approaching the new foods thing. The biggest obstacle was his limited ability to communicate. He couldn’t explain any of it to me, still can’t. I didn’t know how food was affecting him. Did it hurt his belly? Give him gas? Cause any pain at all? No clue. But I knew he suffered from occasional reflux and constipation. And he obviously was sensitive to smell so I made the assumption that his other senses involved with eating were heightened too. Touch, sight, taste and even hearing. The textures of the foods in his fingers, on his tongue, in his mouth. Maybe the colors or shapes of foods were appealing or unappealing to him. I had to consider flavors and whether food was sweet or savory or spicy. And I had to think about the sounds the food was making in his head as he chewed. Eating something crunchy makes a very different noise than sucking something though a straw. A lot to consider.
I decided to start with foods that were similar to what he was already eating. I started with chicken hot dogs (he already ate beef) and crackers (crunchy like cereal). I approached him with a calendar (which he loved) and I gave him a bunch of foods to choose from. He’d pick the foods and then the dates and times he would eat the new foods. We’d write it down on the calendar and when the day came, he would eat it. Eventually we added more foods and he’d take at least one bite (number of bites was also negotiable).
With every new food, he would look at it for a long time. He’d smell it, touch it, move it around with his fork. And as soon as he’d put it in his mouth, he’d gag. Every time. It wasn’t easy for him and he didn’t like everything. But he would try it and I would celebrate his efforts like he’d just won a gold medal at the Olympics. In our world, he had.
Jakob trying new foods was a little bit about food and a whole lot about my beliefs about why he was so picky and stubborn. He wasn’t the one who was being stubborn and picky, I was. And once I figured that out, it was easy as cake.