Children who experience their sensory world differently are at increased risk of eating in a restricted way. Due to the fact that eating is so very important for survival, these children are unlikely to experience the sensory challenges associated with eating in a ‘no pressure’ environment. Parents need them to eat, we need them to eat, every one of us is interested in them eating a rich and varied diet. The pressure is there… but what can we do to support these children?
Celebrate each milestone
The advice given in my previous blog is a good route to follow as you begin to support these children. Remember that you are making tiny adjustments now which will have a big impact further down the line. Do not expect magic wands and do not consider something which makes a minute change to be a failure. Instead, inform everyone within earshot (and further, if you have a megaphone or a helpful town crier!) as to what these tiny incremental steps towards that end goal look like so that the child can experience a community celebrating their progress rather than panicking over their lack of achievement.
Consider this a long-term project – six months slowly introducing new tastes is far more likely to end up with a child eating an increased range of foods than six months arguing with a child that they must eat their dinner. Support the parents of that child to feel vindicated in this approach and they are less likely to face judgement from family and friends who mistakenly believe the child should simply not be allowed to leave the table until dinner is finished.
Next, think about the problem the child is facing from a sensory point of view. They are likely to be experiencing some degree in sensory processing difficulties (read more about this in a previous blog). Such difficulties can mean that sensations are heightened or dampened in ways that make them difficult to tolerate. Imagine if someone asked you to eat something that was as loud as a fire alarm when you crunched it. Or expected you to swallow something with the consistency of a slimy slug’s trail. Imagine someone telling you that something that tasted of pure sulphur was actually fine. Or asking you to chew a pincushion full of pins. What these children face is very tough!
Now consider just one sensory modality – let’s go with touch as we were talking about that in the previous blog. You have a child who struggles, for one reason or another, to process tactile experiences. Touching things is difficult. Not only are you asking them to touch something, but you are asking them to do it WITH THEIR MOUTH, not at the end of a tentatively outstretched arm, not near to their body, literally inside their face which is one of the most intimate and personal spaces on our bodies. Now add in the other modalities: not only are you asking them to deal with a smell they struggle with, you are asking them to contend with taste and lots of disgusting squelchy repulsive sounds. And not only are you expecting them to do these things WITH THEIR MOUTH, you are expecting the child to do them ALL AT ONCE. To a child who struggles with the sensory world, this is torture and it is torture meted out on them by the people they love and trust. It is no wonder we witness such high levels of distress when we sit them down to eat!
What can we do?
Progress is unlikely to be made at mealtimes. Mealtimes need to become low stress. Whatever it is that the child eats, even if it is only crisps, can be set out and the meal enjoyed. We will add the other foods in at other times.
Break down the sensory challenges children face into their separate parts and offer these in the ways described in my previous post. So, for example, you might take the smell of food as one of them. Consider what smells they currently tolerate, or even enjoy, and create a way to play with these (not too many at once – it is easy to overwhelm with smell). Now add in a smell closer to the taste of food. Celebrate the child’s willingness to increase their smell palate. Be clear to the adults around them that this is a step towards better eating (but, crucially, do not make it about eating for the child). Continue the game over a prolonged period of time until you are including a rich array of food smells.
Another sensory modality challenged by eating is touch. Think of the different areas of your body and where you are more sensitive to touch: the hands are very sensitive, the mouth and tongue even more so. If the child can cope with touch experiences that are comparable to food (e.g. touching a thick fluid with their hands) then offer an array of touch experiences for them to explore in this way and, as the game becomes established, introduce foods. When you start out it is best to make sure you are not using actual foods for these games, as they may alert the child to your ulterior motive and trigger their established stress response.
If the child cannot cope with touches on their fingers and hands, try another area of the body – perhaps the upper arm as this is not so sensitive, or the feet as these are less personal. Start from where ever they are, offer a repeating predictable experience and make it fun. Take the progressive steps slowly and always take little ones. Slow and steady wins the race.
Repetition is key
Isolate and share each sensory experience associated with eating whilst repeating and building these over time. Once the child is able to cope with them individually, you can begin to partner them together. All the while, you are moving towards the end goal of them being able to do them all at once WITH THEIR MOUTH. When you begin to do this breakdown, you gain a greater awareness of how big the challenge is that they face.
You might think taste needs to be excluded from this adventure but you can find ways to share taste which mitigate many of the other challenges. So you might find you can vary a food they already accept, e.g. a child who eats crisps may be willing to try different flavours. Or you can offer taste in a very one-dimensional way, e.g. blending food so that it is fluid in the mouth and does not require chewing and does not make a noise.
If you want to further boost your ability to support the child in this way, you can learn about how each sensory system develops. The experiences we are able to process in early development are often more accessible than those linked to later development. As you offer the child the touch experiences, the smell experiences, the taste experiences and the auditory experiences, you can present these in developmental order. Doing this will make it even easier for the child to come on this journey with you.
Information about the development of the senses is what my Develop Your Sensory Lexiconary course is all about, it is also in my book Sensory-being for Sensory Beings and available for free via long chats with me! If you are particularly stuck with a child on this issue, this information is well worth finding out, as some of it – particularly with regards to touch, taste and smell – can be counter-intuitive.
The best thing you can do for these children is to break the sensory challenge of eating down into its tiniest parts and recognise and celebrate their achievements as they master each part of the journey – and don’t forget to get others on board with your celebrations!
It might also interest readers to know that I was once a fussy eater as a child, yet my dinner tonight contains all manner of colourful vegetables including slimy, slippery substances like avocado. For a little extra insight, here’s a couple of recent Facebook posts here – come and make friends!
About the author
Joanna Grace is an international Sensory Engagement and Inclusion Specialist, Trainer, Author, TEDx speaker and Founder of The Sensory Projects.
Consistently rated as Outstanding by Ofsted, Joanna has taught in mainstream and special school settings, connecting with pupils of all ages and abilities. To inform her work, Joanna draws on her own experience from her private and professional life as well as taking in all the information she can from the research archives. Joanna’s private life includes family members with disabilities and neurodiverse conditions and time spent as a registered foster carer for children with profound disabilities.
Joanna’s books Sensory Stories for children and teens and Sensory-being for Sensory Beings sell globally. She has a further five books due for publication within the next two years, including four children’s books.