Thanksgiving always poses a problem for those who are orally defensive. And although sensory processing disorder occurs simultaneously with many ASD individuals, it also occurs in those who do not have autism. My non-autistic younger son, Aidan, is highly orally defensive, and has been since infancy. It was so bad that sometimes while breastfeeding, if the milk tasted differently to him, he would scream and act as if I were trying to feed him motor oil. It was not fun for either of us.
The term “picky eater” does not seem to be the most fitting for Aidan, now twelve years old. Nigel, my autistic son, I would describe as a “very picky eater.” Aidan I would describe as a “limited eater.” Whereas Nigel will choose from an array of five acceptable breakfast items, Aidan will eat one (cold cereal and milk, alternating between two types of cereal, and that has only been a very recent development). Nigel will eat any of 12 choices for lunch and dinner, and Aidan is limited to five, and there are limitations even within those five.
He does not eat sandwiches. No macaroni and cheese. In fact, no cheese at all. He’ll eat pizza, but only after he peels off the cheese. No waffles, no oatmeal, no eggs, no CAKE even. For his birthday, he has cinnamon rolls.
I used to fight him on this. I recall when he was four years old that I gave him a tiny piece of lettuce and he refused to eat it, of course. So I sat on the kitchen floor with him and held him and put the piece of lettuce in his mouth and forced him to eat it. And I swore I would never force him to eat anything again. I tried making bargains with him, I tried letting him go hungry until he would eat what was on the table. I tried reward charts. I tried grounding. Nothing worked.
In fact, the only thing that has worked is respecting his oral defensiveness. Respecting the fact that he has a hard time eating in the first place, and he only weighs 78 pounds, and “letting him go hungry” is the worst possible thing I could do because then his stomach would shrink further, making it even more difficult for him to eat the next time he tries. There are compelling reasons why he won’t or can’t eat many foods, and the best thing I can do is accept it and work with it.
And so, tomorrow, when we go to my mom’s for Thanksgiving as we do every year, we will bring Aidan’s certain brand of turkey hot dogs that he eats. And the raw baby carrots, the only vegetable he will eat. And he’ll sit at the table with the rest of us, and everyone understands (after some years of fruitless cajoling) that he will only eat what he eats. And we’re all a lot happier for it.