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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. 

In my last article, we explored the reality of eating difficulties prompted by sensory differences. I encourage you if you, have not read it, to click back and read that article first as for any of these strategies for sensory needs to work you need to have a good sense of what the difficulties are that are being faced. Suffice to say here as a reminder that this is very much NOT about children being naughty and fussy and everything about them, and the adults who love them, being frightened and overwhelmed. As a professional coming into this, you have a choice between joining in with the pressure and the fear or standing back and offering possible ways out. I will say up front that I have no magic wands, these are just things I have found useful in the past when supporting children (and adults) who have struggled to eat because of sensory processing differences. 

All Or Nothing 

Often when you are supporting a child who struggles with eating, conversations with their family become all or nothing. The question is: “Have they eaten?” and the answer is yes or no. If you answer yes, the family member breathes a sigh of relief, pressure has been taken off them. If you answer no, the family member draws breath in and fastens their resolve for the battle they know they have to face when they get home. Carrying on with this all-or-nothing narrative ignores the complexity of what the child is facing and can make it feel like we are getting nowhere. 

Try breaking eating down into its sensory components. There are the smells of eating, the tastes of eating, the sound of eating, the look of food, and the texture of food. To be able to eat, a person has to be able to manage all of these things. Suppose I asked you to do five things you find difficult and asked you to do them all at once. It would be a bit much, wouldn’t it? But what if I gave you a chance to practice them one by one? Food can be looked at in photos – that do not pose any threat of an expectation of consumption, it can be watched on cooking shows, and in adverts (often the junk food children are willing to eat is the food they’ve encountered visually in a non-threatening way multiple times through adverts). Food can be played with outside away from any environment that suggests a requirement to eat, so that it is touched and felt.

Things that are not food but share textural similarities with food can be explored in a tactile way, and then gradually blended with food. The smelled of food can be offered without the sight or feel of food (opaque aware boxes with food inside, pinged in the microwave to release the scent and then opened just a fraction). The sounds of eating can be made at other times – the monster in the story could chomp upon an apple, and they can be heard on sound clips accessed online.  

What if at pick-up time you proudly told that anxious parent: “He’s done well today, he’s touched two different types of food and smelt one, we even did some chomping noises together when we were playing on the rope bridge at playtime”? You turn that all-or-nothing conversation into a journey, a journey you are on with that family – because it is not just the child who feels alone and frightened when faced across the table by the loved one who usually protects them but who is asking them to eat, it is the adult too – they need a friend like you. 

Bold Sensory Strategies For Eating

Sometimes when children (and adults) struggle with eating through sensory reasons, people try to start with bland soft foods, as they would with a child (or adult) who was nervous about new foods. This can work, but do you remember how in article 8 in this series, I explained that sensing is a skill we develop? There are early (easier) parts to this skill and later (harder) parts to this skill. In that article, I gave the example of babies and sight; we know they see light and dark better than they see colour. This is because it is easier to understand what is light and what is dark than to understand what is yellow and what is green. The big bold contrasts were the easier option, and the subtler more nuanced, gentle aspects were the harder option.

So it can seem counterintuitive but when you think about it from the position of sensory development, it makes sense: sometimes children who struggle to eat due to sensory differences respond better to big bold flavours or sensations than they do to seemingly ‘easier’ food. Try crunchy crisps or toasted pitta bread, try bold flavours- salty, spicy. At this point, it becomes relevant to tell you that I was one of these children. I limited my diet to mostly beige food (at least that takes the visual stimulation out of it, one less sensory task to manage) and repeatedly ate the same foods, often packaged foods as they are more predictable than home-cooked foods. I can pinpoint when I began to eat a wider range of foods to a moment at university (notice that this was a moment when the decision was all in my hands and there were no external pressures on what I should do whatsoever) when I considered that pickled onions might taste similar to the pickled onion crisps I regularly ate for my lunch. My starting point for eating vegetables was pickled onions! 

I hope you have enjoyed this series of ten articles exploring the sensory needs world in all its wonders and possibilities. Do come and connect with me online the connection links for my social media accounts can be found on my website www.TheSensoryProjects.co.uk and if you want to re-read any of the earlier articles remember they are all available online to explore and share with families.  

Explore more in this series on sensory needs 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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