M.P.J. in Upstate New York

My Son Doesn't Eat

My six-year-old son is autistic, and like many autistic people -- children and adults -- eating is difficult for him. My son has never eaten like a typical child. People who are trying to be understanding and kind-hearted will say, "Oh, I know just what you mean. My child is picky too!" Every time I hear those words, I feel like I'm watching myself in a scene from a movie: I stand looking up at the sky, sad and resigned, and as the camera pans out, I become a speck in the middle of a vast nothing. I'm alone and lost in the middle of an uncharted wasteland, and the person who "gets it" is comparing that to pulling over in the middle of Orlando to ask for directions to Disney World. My son stopped eating anything new around the time he was one. At his first birthday party, he wouldn't touch the birthday cake I made for him from scratch; he wouldn't try any part of the little sandwiches on the platter we purchased, not even a bit of cheese or bread; he didn't want the ice cream; he wouldn't eat the fruit. (What kid refuses cake, ice cream, cookies, candy, sweets?) Since then, his diet has become more and more restricted -- he eats three things and drinks milk. Newness is terrifying to my son; it paralyzes him into starvation.

Each food and beverage that he does consume has to be served the same way each time: in the same cup or bowl, with the same utensil. Change anything, and he won't eat. If a manufacturer changes the packaging design on a previously favored food, my son views it as equivalent to an entirely new food, something he has never eaten before, and he will refuse to eat it. (Needless to say, this mama is not fond of marketing people and their relentless desire for change in the realm of food packaging.)

To those on the outside, there's an easy answer for this: I'm a bad and overly indulgent mama. The experts say that you choose what your child eats, and your child chooses when and how much. I tested this theory when my son was two, and now newness terrifies me too. Our doctor asked us to take our son off of dairy products for a few days (and at the time, that was all he was eating). So, for three days, at our doctor's recommendation, I chose new things: juice instead of milk, rice instead of cheesy pasta; and my child chose to eat and drink nothing, ever. We had to hold him down and put juice in his mouth with a syringe for three days so he wouldn't become dehydrated. He would stand at the kitchen door crying, hungry, but he absolutely refused to eat when presented with new (nondairy) food. So, instead of showing him who was boss of the food world, he showed us, showed us that he couldn't eat new things without a lot of help, without a lot of baby steps.

Now I introduce a new food by playing games with it, so my son won't be afraid to touch it. And then, with lots of positive reinforcement from his favorite activities, I get him to touch it to his face, then his lips, then his tongue, then eventually put it in his mouth and take it out, then swallow. The whole process can take a year, but in the end, he'll be eating something new. Right now he will put a tiny fleck of bread in his mouth and wince and take it out, so that's progress. Sometimes I can even blend the tiniest bit of bread into a favored food and get him to eat it. We may not ever get from this emptiness we're in to Orlando with the rest of the parents, but, honey, we are at least heading in the general direction of Florida.

Of course, every now and then I try to sneak us onto a direct flight. One day, while my son was distracted by the TV, I fed him a different variety of one of his favorite foods. He ate happily until he looked down and noticed that it was different. This was not Brand X strawberry yogurt, it was Brand Y strawberry yogurt. The package was different; the colors were different; it simply wasn't right. "It's okay, buddy," I said, "You've been eating it and it tastes fine, doesn't it?" He looked at me, horrified, as if I had been feeding him human brains, and promptly threw up all over the floor.


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