Don’t expect me to get anywhere near coconut. If you cook onions in the house, give me fair warning. Keep those damn beets away from me! ::shudder::
It always drove my parents to distraction. Today, my long-suffering husband can’t make dinner without wondering if I’ll eat it. I am your classic picky eater. Some food literally make me feel sick to my stomach. And when I say “literally,” I mean it. As a young child, I would not put certain foods in my mouth, and if anyone tried to trick me, I would taste the offending stuff. I was the only one who noticed a faint trace of coconut when a popular cereal included it for a while. This pattern continued throughout my childhood and, to a large degree, it continues today. In fact, I believe there is something inherently evil about coconut…
“Selective eating” seems to be common among children on the autism spectrum. According to one article, “While most children outgrow their tendency to be picky about what they eat, children with ASD often carry the trait into adulthood.”1 As one might imagine, unchecked pickiness can lead to nutritional deficits. Studies cited in the same article suggest that levels of Vitamins A, C, and D, as well as zinc, calcium, and fiber are lower in these children. If the pickiness persists into adulthood, one might infer that these deficiencies will, too.
I can attest to the deficiencies, as I have to be conscious to get enough calcium and fiber. Low levels of calcium can result in muscle cramps in the short term, and osteoporosis in the long run. When I don’t consume enough milk or take calcium instead, my calves and feet start cramping. Fiber can be another issue, but I’m too nice to get into that in this setting.
One article suggests an interesting correlation between an ASD child’s pickiness and the family’s regular menu: “…their food selectivity may be due to restrictive familial diets rather than to the severity of their autism symptoms… findings indicate that children with ASDs eat a more narrow range of foods that includes high-energy dense foods. Eating a narrow range of foods with high energy density may put children with ASDs at increased risk for excessive weight gain and chronic diseases, as high energy dense diets are typically high in fat and low in fiber.”2
Is selective eating a nature or nurture issue? Taking from these two articles and my own experience, I say “both.” I still don’t like for certain things to touch on my plate, but at least I’ll eat many of those things. I’ve even learned to try new things–without making a face! One of the things my parents did do right was to insist I try foods I “didn’t like.” Most of the time, I truly didn’t, but I tried them. My keen sense of smell is generally on target, so I have a fair idea of whether I’ll like something or not. There are a few exceptions. I love the smell of gourmet coffee, for example, but I definitely do not like the taste. I know this because I have sipped these flavors even though I know I don’t like coffee in general. If I have to choke the stuff down, I’ll take it either black or a French vanilla cappuccino.
There are some things that I found out, many years later, that I don’t hate after all. These are the foods that had the misfortune to be improperly prepared by my parents. Iced tea, for example, should never, ever, ever be despoiled by sugar! I don’t mind some fruit flavoring, but sugar?!?! Considering my impossibly sweet tooth, this is remarkable. I love iced tea, but not sweet tea, and definitely not that Nestea crap my dad always mixed!
By now, you should get the idea: I’m picky. However, it could be worse. My parents did a good thing by refusing to indulge me. I ate what they made or went hungry. Of course, I learned to sneak food later–often white bread that I’d decrust and ball up to eat like a lump of Play-Doh (no, I didn’t eat Play-Doh, but I wanted to), or I’d sneak Nestle Quick and dunk 4-8 slices of bread in it like a donut in coffee. I digress.
From my perspective, I can tell you that there are degrees within the selectiveness. There’s the “I’m not familiar with this” type of pickiness. Then there’s the “I really, really hate this” kind of pickiness. If you are caring for someone with this issue, I encourage you to insist they try new foods, but don’t force it on them. Offer a payoff if they refuse: “You can have FoodA if you try one bite of FoodB.” And it has to be bigger than a sand grain. I tried that one frequently as a kid. At minimum, make it the size of a pea. A spoon- or forkful would be better. If your picky eater won’t do it still, they don’t get FoodA, or their sticker, token, whatever incentive. Plain and simple. Okay, not so plain and simple in some cases, but you’d be surprised what will happen with consistency. Muchie (my daughter) can usually be bribed in this manner. So can I. 😉
If you can get a handle on picky eating on your own, there are dietitians who can help. Don’t let the picky eater win, because, in the end, you both lose.
1 Reynolds, Denise. “Picky Eating Risks Autistic Kids.” Emax Health. eMax Health.com. 19 April 2010. Web: 21 June 2010. <http://www.emaxhealth.com/1506/picky-eating-common-autistic-children-may-be-nutritional-risk.html>
2 Evans, Erin Whitney. “Selective Eating and Autism Spectrum Disorder.” Behavioral Health Nutrition. BHNDPG. Web: 21 June 2010