Sensory Needs: They Won’t Eat! 

I’m Jo Grace: a Sensory Engagement and Inclusion Specialist and Founder of The Sensory Projects in this series of 10 articles I am going to share some of my passion for understanding the sensory world with you. 

This is article 9 of a series of 10 articles that have taken you on an adventure through the wonders of the sensory world. We’ve looked at how using sensory engagement strategies can support children to engage, learn and promote good mental health for them and you. We’ve looked at changing the sensory environment and providing for differing sensory needs through environmental adaptations and by supplying particular resources in response to particular needs. In this article, we are going to broach a very serious and often very frightening topic for families of children with sensory processing differences: eating. 

The Overwhelming Experience Of Eating

If you process the sensory world differently, this is likely to impact your eating. Eating is necessary to stay alive, and eating a variety of food is necessary to maintain good health, so when a child struggles to do these things, it is only natural that those who care about them find this very alarming. Very quickly, a lot of pressure can build up around that child, which can further exacerbate the situation. You may find that as someone one step removed from the situation, (yes you love and care for that child, but in a professional role, you are not as close to them as their nearest and dearest), you are better able to offer support than someone more involved, the distance takes the pressure off and allows more freedom to explore. 

In this article, we are going to begin by building our understanding of how sensory differences can impact eating. It is very easy for people to label a child struggling with their eating as a ‘fussy’ eater, or to view their insistence on only eating certain foods (often junk foods) as a form of ‘naughtiness’. Families get told they are ‘letting them get away with it’ and it ends up as a whole sad muddle. So to avoid that sad muddle, we are going to understand it. In understanding it, we can get alongside the child and we can equip the family with the responses they need to fend off the pressure that comes from the unhelpful remarks above. The understanding creates space, and in that space change is possible. In my next article, we will explore some of the practical strategies. If you are reading these online and both have been published, don’t skip ahead just yet, none of the practical things works without the foundational understanding to inform their provision, and you may find that with the understanding, your regular provision can be tweaked slightly and you do not need a novel idea, just a little adjustment to what you already do. 

Navigating Sensory Trauma Surrounding Mealtimes

So: the question is, why does processing sensory information differently lead to difficulties with eating? 

Let’s imagine you are someone who struggles with tactile sensation. We all have a level at which touch becomes difficult for us, things become too scratchy or just plain too icky and we no longer want to touch them, they become alarming to touch or disgusting to touch. If you process tactile stimulation differently, likely, this cut-off point of when touch becomes problematic happens sooner for you. 

Now suppose I offered you a disgusting touch sensation – the underside of a squished slug perhaps? Imagine I have that on a plate and I am asking that you touch it. I expect, if you were in any way willing to oblige me, you would stretch out a fingertip, it would be far away from your body, and the finger itself would stretch trying to get away from the hand. You would hold yourself as far away from the fingertip as you could, you’d lean away, only the very tip of your finger would approach and would touch the slug very VERY quickly and then shoot away to join the rest of your recoiled body. You certainly would not come close to it, you would not bring your face close to it, you would not touch it with your face. What about with your lips that register so much more sensation than your fingers, or your tongue on which the nerve endings are so close together that it can register far greater detail than your fingers? No, you wouldn’t want to touch it with those things, and if I asked you to touch it with your tongue, forced you even, you would do with your tongue as you had with your finger, extending it, trying to get it away from yourself, you certainly would not put it inside of you, inside of your face, in your mouth. The invasion of doing that would be too much to bear. 

Suppose you did not just struggle with touch but also with sound. Your ears pick up more sounds, you notice more little squeaks and pips and squishes than other people do. You are not able to filter out sounds, you cannot pick out one voice from the many, the sound of the cars passing by is as present to you as the sound of the adult talking to you. When we eat we use our control of the information our hearing brings to us to tune out the sound of our eating, we know it is not useful to hear. We hear it, of course, we hear it – our mouths are right next door to our ears – we just choose not to focus on it by making processing choices in our brains. Suppose your brain could not do that, you would have to listen to all those slurping, crunching, sucking, squelchy noises of eating, they would be in your head all the while you ate, along with the noises of other people eating, and talking, and cutlery being used, chairs being moved, footsteps, voices - it would be too much. 

What if it wasn’t just touch and sound, what if it was smell as well? The smell is such a powerful sense in terms of its ability to pack an emotional punch. The smell is processed by the limbic brain, your emotional brain, so smelling something is an emotional act. Imagine the slug I’m offering is rotten, it stinks… you know the drill now… would you want to smell it from inside your mouth! 

I could continue through the other senses but you understand. Eating is a massive sensory ask, and often people are asked to process multiple difficult sensations at the same time. It is no wonder they struggle! 

If you are a person who struggles with their sensory world, there is likely someone who understands your struggles. Usually, the person you have bonded most closely with. The person who loves you more dearly than they love themselves. It is this person who, when it gets too noisy at the supermarket, takes you outside to wait on a bench until the rest of the family have finished the shop. It is this person who knows you won’t want to play in the sandpit and so takes you over to the slide. This person protects you from the sensory experiences you find difficult, this person is with you, they’re on your side... except when it comes to the terrifying experience of eating, it is this person who insists you do it. Even this person sometimes forces you to do it. In this moment of facing all those difficult sensations, not only are you asked to deal with all of those difficult things, you are asked to do it alone. 

It is no wonder that enormous tension and fear grow around mealtimes. Of course the person trying to get the child to eat is not intending to frighten them and is not abandoning them. They’re trying to keep them alive and keep them healthy. If the child is lucky they will have more than one person care about them, and because people care they get desperate They argue with one another about what is best to do. "Should we be being stricter? Don’t give them anything to eat, once they’re starving they’ll eat what we give them. Don’t let them leave the table until they’ve tried it. Mash it up and hide it in the food they will eat." 

Trauma occurs when people are not able to act to escape situations they find stressful. Trauma builds up swiftly around eating for people with sensory differences and their families. It is no wonder that the sight of a knife and fork, a plate, and the suggestion that you come and sit for a snack, is enough to send some children into a meltdown. As a professional, you have the option of joining in with this cycle of pressure and panic or staying on the outside and trying to find a way to reach in and offer a route out.

In my next article, we are going to think about some of the things that you can try with children who struggle to eat because of sensory differences. Until then please feel free to connect with me on social media to watch my current sensory adventures unfurl. All the connection links can be found on my website www.TheSensoryProjects.co.uk  

Explore more in this series here:

About the author:

Joanna Grace is an international Sensory Engagement and Inclusion Specialist, trainer, author, TEDx speaker and founder of The Sensory Projects. Joanna draws on her own personal experiences to inform her writing surround neurodivergence, SEN, and inclusion in early years.

About the author:

Joanna Grace is an international Sensory Engagement and Inclusion Specialist, trainer, author, TEDx speaker and founder of The Sensory Projects. Joanna draws on her own personal experiences to inform her writing surround neurodivergence, SEN, and inclusion in early years.

About the author:

Joanna Grace is an international Sensory Engagement and Inclusion Specialist, trainer, author, TEDx speaker and founder of The Sensory Projects. Joanna draws on her own personal experiences to inform her writing surround neurodivergence, SEN, and inclusion in early years.

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