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When a child has mealtime challenges due to special needs like autism, ADHD, sensory processing issues or other neurodiversities, they need support and understanding from everyone around them. But parents and caregivers often find it difficult to communicate about their child’s needs with others. They may feel embarrassed or believe that they or their child are being judged. Or they simply may not know exactly how to help others understand the reasons behind their child’s unique eating challenges and mealtime needs.
It’s hard to deal with the family Thanksgiving where Aunt Helen lets everyone know just exactly how “picky eaters” would have been dealt with “back in her day,” or the cousins refuse to sit at the kids’ table because of one child’s “weird” eating behaviors. And certainly no one enjoys being the parent at the neighborhood barbecue whose kid is the “disruptive” one who “can’t sit still” or “has no table manners.” Helping others – both adults and children – understand that kids who struggle with eating and expected mealtime behavior aren’t “bad” or “weird” is an important part of supporting neurodivergent children and making meals feel safer and more comfortable for them. It’s also a step towards reducing the stigma that still exists for neurodivergent people of all ages.
Dr. Martha Straus, psychologist, professor, and author of Cool, Calm, and Connected, puts it this way. “This is about adults’ embarrassment about their kids’ behavior. But adults need to know what is hard for their kids so they can have compassion. As parents become more comfortable with a child’s neurodivergence, then they can just name the challenge. I hold the adults responsible (for meeting the child’s needs).”
Here are some suggestions to help you talk about your child’s eating challenges and mealtime needs, and make social gatherings more comfortable for everyone:
- Normalize differences. Naureen Hunani, a pediatric dietitian specializing in neurodiversity, points out that there are eating differences among all people. “Some eat slower and some eat faster. Not everyone likes every food,” she offers. “Some kids only eat 15 foods, and that’s okay.” Dr. Robyn Thom, Child and Adult Psychiatrist at the MGH Lurie Center for Autism, suggests saying something like “Yes, we all have likes and dislikes. Johnny doesn’t like foods that are crunchy! What’s something you don’t like?”
- Keep sensory sensitivities simple. Often, a child’s sensory processing differences can seem overwhelming, and parents may be tempted to over-explain. But keeping things simple and direct is usually the best way to help others quickly understand the challenge. Jennifer Stornelli, an Occupational Therapist specializing in Pediatric Feeding Issues at Spaulding Outpatient Center for Children, advocates starting by having everyone think about their own preferences. “We are all sensory beings,” she points out. “There’s a huge range of how much we can tolerate noise, how much movement we need, and how we manage our own impulses. Some people don’t like to be hugged or socially touched. Some people get dizzy when they spin around even once. I prefer to go into a handshake, instead of a hug.” Reminding adults and older children of these simple, everyday sensory differences can help them more easily understand a neurodivergent child’s needs.
For younger children, Melanie Potock, MA, CCC-SLP, recommends a “concise but loving script.” She offers this example: “Your cousin’s body is sensitive to things that might not bother you at all, like the smell of certain foods or the feel of a paper napkin on your face. They are still learning to tolerate new sensations, and I’m so grateful for your patience while they are learning about new things.”
- Get ahead of questions before the big event. If there’s a predictable shared eating event coming up, like a family holiday meal, it may be a good idea to talk about your child’s needs ahead of time. A call, email, or text message with one or more key people could help pave the way for a smoother experience. “You’re advocating for your child to be able to celebrate, so it’s important to be explicit (about their needs) and share ideas for accommodations,” says Dr. Nora Friedman, Clinician at the Lurie Center at MGH. Stornelli agrees, advising caregivers to communicate in advance about three things: 1) What challenges might come up for your child; 2) How your child might behave due to those challenges; and 3) How the other adults can help.
For example, Stornelli says, “My child is really sensitive to loud noises, including when a lot of people are talking at the same time. She might feel overwhelmed when that happens, and she might cover her ears or start humming. Those are the strategies that she has learned to help her brain manage the volume that is uncomfortable to her. It would be helpful if we could try to avoid talking loudly when she’s at the table with us.”
- Have a plan in place and share it with others. While it’s okay (and even necessary!) to ask family and friends to help make your child comfortable, it’s also crucial to take responsibility for setting your child up for success as much as possible. For example, you might bring your child’s “safe foods” to the holiday gathering to relieve some of the pressure of encountering unfamiliar foods.
Be prepared to head off unhelpful questions or judgments with a script like this one, from Stornelli: “He has been working really hard on trying new foods. We’re working on that at school and in his therapy, but for the holiday meal, since the routine will be different that day for all of us, we’re going to let him just enjoy his favorite foods. They may be different from the foods the rest of the family is enjoying. So if you see him eating mac and cheese instead of the Thanksgiving food the rest of us are eating, that’s okay! Let’s not put any pressure on him to try other holiday foods, since a holiday is not the best time for him to work on those things.”
Food isn’t the only potential challenge during a family holiday or other social eating occasion. You might also want to have a plan in place to help your child decompress from feeling socially overwhelmed, like asking your hosts in advance to help you identify a quiet area in the house where they wouldn’t mind your child spending some time (either alone or with a caregiver, depending on the child’s age and needs). Friedman advises managing adult expectations of your child’s behavior: “Jenny will join us at the table for ten minutes, then she’ll go off for some alone time, and she’ll come back for dessert.”
- Try including a familiar ritual that’s fun for everyone. If you have a specific mealtime ritual that helps your child feel more comfortable, maybe you can share it with the group! For example, if you often begin family meals with some deep breathing and a specific conversation starter to help your child transition smoothly, why not ask your hosts if you and your child can share that ritual with everyone? Or if your child enjoys a specific table game or likes to answer trivia questions during dinner, you could see if they might like to teach the game or share the trivia deck at the holiday meal. If pre-dinner movement breaks are important, you could suggest a family dance party or game of tag. Your child might also have some ideas and want to help you brainstorm about the types of activities and rituals they could share with extended family and friends to make the occasion more fun and comfortable for them.
While it may be uncomfortable at first to bring up your child’s needs and ask for help in accommodating them, it’s important for their well-being – and yours. “It’s better to have a few calm moments than a major tantrum,” Friedman points out. “It’s really hard when families give unwelcome feedback, like ‘You should try harder.’” Helping extended family and friends understand what your child needs during shared meals, and involving them in creating a welcoming atmosphere, is part of keeping your child emotionally and physically safe. It’s also an opportunity for everyone to build their own capacity for empathy and compassion, and to make stronger connections as a family unit. In the long run, the more welcomed and safe your child feels at social occasions, the more they’ll feel free to grow, try new things, and be the best version of themselves.