She Didn’t Eat a Thing at School Today!

school lunch
It’s that time of year again and little kids are climbing onto big yellow buses, tiny hands clutching lunch boxes that are packed full with a variety of choices, with their wishful parents praying that they will “just eat something!”  But at the end of the day, especially if the child is a picky eater, parents sigh as they open the lunch box latch and see that lunch has barely been touched.

For children in feeding therapy, treatment doesn’t stop when a child is eating well in the clinic setting.  Once a child has begun to eat even a limited variety of foods, I prefer to generalize new skills to the community environments as soon as possible, even as clinical treatment continues.  The school cafeteria in the one hot spot in the community that most kids visit five times a week.  It can be a chaotic setting, as described in one of my first blog posts for ASHA, which offered some tips on how to help kids eat in the Café-FEARia.  But what can a parent do at home to encourage kids to bring a healthy lunch, even when they only eat only five to 15 foods?  Here are six tips to encourage even the most hesitant eaters to not only eat preferred foods, but phase-in eating those new options showing up in their lunchboxes:

  1. Begin with Exposure: Kids may need to see a new food multiple times before they may even consider trying it.  That means they need to see it at school too.  If you’re thinking, “But he won’t eat it, so why pack it?” remember that the first step is helping your  hesitant eater get used to the presence of that food in his lunch box again and again.  The link to this ASHAsphere post will explain more, including why food doesn’t have to be eaten to serve a purpose in food education.
  2. Pack All the Choices under One Easy-Open Lid: For my school age clients, I use a compartment or bento-style lunchbox, such as EasyLunchboxes® or Yumbox®.  Even little fingers can open the lids quickly to reveal their entire lunch, so no time is wasted when most kids in the public school system have about 20 minutes to enter, eat and exit the cafeteria.
  3. Give them Ownership in the Lunch Packing Process. Kids like predictability and need to feel a part of the process, especially when it comes to food exploration.  For my clients in feeding therapy, once they have the oral motor and sensory skills to eat a few foods, those foods get packed along with other safe choices in their lunchbox.  A child who is receiving tube feedings may still take a lunchbox if he or she is able to eat even a few foods orally.  To make them the Lunchbox Leader, we create a poster board together that has a photo of the inside of their bento box, essentially creating a “packing map.”
    Packing Map #2
    Using colored markers, I help the child list the foods they can eat with arrows pointing to where the foods go in the box. For example, the Yumbox® has compartments with fun graphics representing dairy, grains, proteins, fruit and veggies. If the child is limited to purees, we write “applesauce” next to the fruit compartment on the poster. But we also write a few more future purees that he/she just needs to be exposed to, and those show up too. Parents and kids pack the lunchbox together the night before, and the kids choose from their short lists what goes in each compartment.  If they have exactly five preferred foods and there are five compartments, then we create a rule that they need to pick a new food for at least one of the compartments.
  4. Include a Favorite, But Just Enough:  Selective eaters always eat their favorite foods first, so be sure to include their preferred food, but not too much.  Provide just enough so that you won’t be worried that they are starving, but not so much that the other less-preferred choices don’t stand a chance.  That’s why the bento boxes work so beautifully, because the individualized compartments, along with the “map” to fill them, guide the packing process.
  5. No Comments Please!  When the lunchbox comes home, resist the urge to unpack it immediately. Give everyone a chance to breathe, especially those kids with sensory challenges who have difficulty with transitions from one environment to another. When you eventually open it, no comments about the contents please!  Nothing, not positive or negative. For many kids, it creates too much focus on whether they ate or not.  That’s addressed in feeding therapy. For now, just wash it out and set it on the counter for your child to pack again later that evening.
  6. Keep Up with Other Strategies: Parents who have kids in feeding therapy understand that it’s a steady, step by step process.  Keep  up with strategies listed in this ASHAsphere post or this one and/or those recommended by your child’s therapist.

Whether you have a child in feeding therapy or a “foodie” with a palate that rivals a Top Chef, I encourage you to have all the kids in your family create a packing map and be responsible for their own lunch packing, with the kids choosing from each category while the parent provides the healthy food options and keeps the kitchen stocked.  You might be surprised to see some of your young foodie’s choices shift to the more hesitant sibling’s packing map over time!  Remember, it starts with exposure and builds from there.

Melanie Potock, MA, CCC-SLP, treats children birth to teens who have difficulty eating.  She is the author of Happy Mealtimes with Happy Kids and the producer of the award-winning kids’ CD Dancing in the Kitchen: Songs that Celebrate the Joy of Food!  Melanie’s two-day course on pediatric feeding is  offered for ASHA CEUs and includes both her book and CD for each attendee.  She can be reached at Melanie@mymunchbug.com.

SLPs in the Home: What’s Pot Got to Do with It?

brownie

I never thought I’d be writing an article for ASHA about marijuana, but because I live in Colorado, I’ve got the latest news on weed to pass along to my fellow SLPs. In fact, if you were sitting here with me in the privacy of my own home (and you were over 21), we could chat about it while lawfully smoking a joint, munching on an edible cannabis-laced cookie, sucking on a marijuana lollipop or even, inhaling the vapors from an e-cigarette packed with marijuana oil. That’s just a sampling of the options we have to get high in the “mile high city.” Before you shout “I’m coming over!” I should probably disclose that I’m not a marijuana user, medical or recreational. If your next thought is “But I DON’T live in Colorado (or Washington) so this doesn’t apply to me – at least professionally” please read this entire article. Colorado law is considered a “springboard for other states” to legalize marijuana soon. Plus, illegal shipping to other states, often discovered during a routine traffic violation committed by the average Joe next door, has increased significantly. According to the El Paso Intelligence Center & National Seizure System, the mini-vans and SUVs bringing home “souvenirs” from Colorado aren’t just from the states bordering the Rocky Mountains. New York, Florida, Illinois and Wisconsin were some of the most popular destinations and consequently, you may experience some unexpected safety issues if you are providing home-based care for children and adults.

In an effort to educate therapists on the new laws and our responsibility to inform our families of issues that may arise with recreational marijuana use, Jane Woodard, the executive director of Colorado Drug Endangered Children, is traveling the state providing health care professionals the necessary information to keep ourselves and the families we serve safe. SLPs are required by law to report suspected conditions that would result in neglect/safety issues or abuse of children and adults. However, many of our families are simply not aware of the safety concerns and home based therapists are often the first resource for educating those families who choose to partake in using, growing or processing recreational marijuana.

Given the various populations that we serve, here is an overview of some of the safety issues:

Infants: As a pediatric feeding therapist, just one of the populations in my care are babies who require support for breast and bottle feeding. In this Colorado culture of embracing our new freedom, mothers are commenting to me without restraint that they’re using marijuana to combat nausea during pregnancy or enjoy “a little pot now and then” while breastfeeding.Studies indicate that by age four alarming changes occur in children that have had prenatal exposure. It’s noteworthy that the studies focused on a much lower amounts of delta-9-tetrhydrocannibinol (THC: the chemical that produces the psychoactive effect) than what is present in today’s super-charged marijuana products. The children demonstrated “increased behavioral problems and decreased performance on visual perceptual tasks, language comprehension, sustained attention and memory.” Marijuana use while breastfeeding is contraindicated because the THC is excreted into breast milk and stored in fat and is suspected to impact a baby’s motor development. There are no established “pump and dump” guidelines for THC and it stays in the bloodstream for much longer than other drugs. Consider the increased risks from both second-hand smoke and third-hand smoke or the “contamination that lingers” after smoking, including an increased risk for SIDS and more. For the home-based SLP, exposure to second and third-hand smoke or residue means that I will likely carry that aroma with me to the next home. I am responsible for the safety of all of the children I treat, and many are medically fragile and/or have sensory challenges and would be impacted by these odors. Today, I am faced with difficult conversations with parents that I never imagined I would have.

Children: In four short months, from January to April 2014, Colorado’s Poison Control Center has reported 11 children who ingested edibles, one as young as five months old. Over half of those children had to be hospitalized and two were admitted to the ICU. Consider that those are the reported cases – and what goes unreported is difficult to ascertain. While the law requires that the packaging cannot be designed to appeal to kids, current practices are questionable. Some argue that edibles are packaged too much like junk food, with boxes of “Pot-tarts” similar to the popular toaster pastry, bottles of fizzy “soda-pot” and candy bars with labels that rival Mars® and Hershey’s®.  In April 2014, Karma-Candy was the marijuana candy that a father in Denver consumed just before hallucinating and killing his wife, who was on the phone with 911 dispatchers at the time. She could be heard yelling to her kids to go downstairs as she desperately tried to get help for her family.

Packaging of certain products must also be in an opaque and re-sealable container, but that law only applies to the time of purchase. Plus, most edibles contain multiple servings and it’s not unusual for one cookie to serve six people. Even adults are mistakenly eating whole cookies and in April 2014, one visiting college student consequently jumped to his death from a hotel balcony after eating too much of an edible. A New York Times columnist visiting Colorado ate a whole candy bar labeled as 16 servings, and “laid in a hallucinatory state for 8 hours.” Home baked marijuana options are equally confusing. As a feeding therapist, I used to be comfortable offering foods to a child from a family’s pantry. But now, a tempting plate of brownies may be more than just a plate of brownies. By law, edibles, like any marijuana product (even plants), must be in an “enclosed, locked space.” However, it is not unusual for Colorado therapists to arrive for their home visit and find a bong, topical lotions or a half-eaten edible on the living room coffee table. Early intervention and home health care agencies are considering how to educate families on the first day of contact, during the intake process. Susan Elling, MA, CCC-SLP, who treats both children and adults in the home, notes that “It will be very important to have an open and honest conversation with a patient (and their family) regarding marijuana use as part of taking the medical history – just as we do for alcohol and smoking.”

Adults: Ms. Elling reported that “the population in need of homecare services may be more likely to use marijuana to control pain and nausea” because family members are more likely to suggest it and there will no longer be a need to obtain a medical marijuana card. Ms. Elling also notes that marijuana “affects sleep, balance, coordination, and cognition.  This may be amplifying the conditions a patient is already dealing with related to medical issues.  It can also significantly raise anxiety.  These are all factors that increase fall risk, confusion, lead to poor judgment, and can setback a patient’s recovery. It may be very difficult to determine what issues are related to the patient’s medical condition and which are related to the marijuana use.  Interventions, progress and prognosis may be affected.” Edibles in particular are a safety hazard for this population, because of the inability to self-regulate. There is no predicting how an edible will effect one person or another.

“It’s not your grandmother’s marijuana,” reported Dr. Richard Zane, who is the head of the Department of Emergency Medicine at the University of Colorado Hospital. Well-meaning family members, hoping to control their loved one’s discomfort, may not realize that the strength of today’s marijuana is significantly higher than the pot your cool grandma smoked in the 60’s. In fact, THC levels represent a 121% increase just from 1999 to 2010. Family members may not understand that the strength and effect of the drug varies from product to product. For example, compare two hits on today’s joint and an individual will ingest approximately five mg of the chemicals that produce the psychoactive and/or sedative effects compared to up to 100 mg in one packaged edible. Plus, even using the exact same method of ingestion does not guarantee the exact same dosage every time. Zane reported in this interview with Colorado Public Radio that the “drug isn’t always spread evenly through food or candy, so several people eating the same amounts can be ingesting different quantities of marijuana.”

The uncertainty of dosage and effects has Elling on guard: “I am concerned that the high potency, unpredictable effect, easy availability, and unclear dosage information of edibles may have serious consequences for homecare patients with already fragile health. It is also misleadingly considered quite “benign” and safe compared to alcohol consumption and smoking.  I feel the need to know the signs and symptoms of a marijuana overdose and know the contraindications with any other prescription or OTC drugs they may be taking and be able to educate my patients and their caregivers regarding this issue.”

Additional Safety Concerns: In the course of this short article, it’s impossible to cover all of the safety issues, including those related to growing and processing marijuana in the home. These concerns include electrical hazards from impromptu wiring (not to code); cultivation hazards such a mold and poor air quality for medically fragile patients;  increased carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide necessary for growing; chemical exposures and improper storage of pesticides and poisonous fertilizers; THC on household surfaces and airborne exposure; and exploding hash oil labs. From January to April 2014, hash oil explosions occurred on a weekly basis in Colorado, some triggered just by turning on a nearby light switch.

Consider Family Functioning: The impact on safety is the tip of the iceberg. Woodard explained that home health professionals must consider a parent’s behavior when using marijuana, the impact on a child’s behavior and family functioning overall. Difficult but often necessary questions to ask include: What steps have you taken to protect your children and family members? How do you store your marijuana and paraphernalia? What are you like when you use? Most importantly, she recommended asking yourself “Do I believe that the conditions in this home could reasonably result in harm” to anyone in this household? If so, educate the family and be mindful of mandatory reporting laws.

 

Melanie Potock, MA, CCC-SLP, treats children birth to teens who have difficulty eating.  She is the author of Happy Mealtimes with Happy Kids and the producer of the award-winning kids’ CD Dancing in the Kitchen: Songs that Celebrate the Joy of Food!  Melanie’s two-day course on pediatric feeding is offered for ASHA CEUs and includes both her book and CD for each attendee.  She can be reached at Melanie@mymunchbug.com.

Three Reasons Why Kids Get Hooked on “Kids’ Meals”… and How to Change That

chicken

Let me say this up front: I’m not condemning the American Kids’ Meal that is so common in fast food chains and family restaurants, but clearly I’m not keen on eating that type of food when there are other choices.   My own kids have certainly had their fair share of chicken nuggets, mac n’cheese and French fries, just to name a few of the comfort kid foods that predictably reappear on kids’ menus day after day.   This is not a blog about good vs. healthy nutrition, because most parents (including me) know that the traditional fast food fare is not healthy…and that’s exactly why parents want to change the statistics that 15 percent of preschoolers ask to go to McDonald’s  “at least once a day.”    The millions of dollars spent on advertising and toys to market kids meals certainly makes many of us frustrated when much less is spent on marketing a culture of wellness.  By hooked, I don’t mean addicted, although there is research that suggests that food addiction may be a serious component for a subset of the pediatric population Plus, the added sugars in processed foods have been found to be addictive in lab experiments.  But, for the purposes of this short article, let’s keep kids’ meals in this very small box:  Most kids love them.

Why am I writing about this for ASHA? As a pediatric SLP who focuses on feeding, one of the frequent comments I hear from parents is “As long we’ve got chicken nuggets,  then my kid will eat.”   Besides the obvious “just say no” solution, what parents truly are asking is,  “How do I expand my kid’s diet to include more than what’s on a kids’ menu?”  Whether we are considering our pediatric clients in feeding therapy or simply the garden-variety picky eater, that is an excellent question with not a very simple answer.

In feeding therapy, therapists take into account the child’s physiology (which includes the sensory system), the child’s gross motor, fine motor and oral motor skills  and also behaviors that affect feeding practices.  Therapists then create a treatment plan designed to help that specific child progress through the developmental process of eating.  While the nuances of learning to bite, chew and swallow a variety of foods are too complex to cover in a short blog post, here are just three of the reasons why kids get hooked on kids’ meals and some strategies to avoid being locked into the standard kids’ menu and begin to expand a child’s variety of preferred foods:

  1. Kids barely have to chew.  The common fast food chicken nugget is a chopped mixture of …well, if you want to know, click here.  Warning: it will ruin your appetite for chicken nuggets, so if your kids can read,  clicking might be the first solution.  However, in terms of oral motor skills, bites of chicken nuggets are a first food that even an almost toothless toddler can consume with relative ease.  Simply gum, squish and swallow.  Macaroni and cheese?  Oily French fries?  Ditto.  There’s  not a lot of chomping going on!
  • In feeding therapy, SLPs assess a child’s oral motor skills and may begin to address strengthening a child’s ability to use a rotary chew, manage the food easily and swallow safely.  Many of the families we work with eat fast food on a regular basis and we might start with those foods, but slowly over time, more variety is introduced.
  • For general picky eaters or those progressing in feeding therapy, the key is to offer small samplings of foods that DO require chewing, as long as a parent feels confident that their child is safe to do so.  Starting early with a variety of manageable solids, as described in this article for ASHA, is often the first step.   For older kids, the texture (and comfort) of “squish and swallow” foods can contribute to food jags.  Here are ten tips for preventing food jags, including how to build your child’s familiarity around something other than the drive-thru.
  1. At restaurant chains and drive-thrus, kids’ meals are readily available.  Helpful hostesses grab the crayons and the matching kids’ menus as soon as they spot a parent walking in with little children.  Kiddos quickly become conditioned to ordering mac n’ cheese or hot dogs.   Parents want a peaceful, enjoyable experience dining out, so naturally they like the kids’ menu option because it appeases everyone.  But it’s just that–an option.
  • In feeding therapy,  SLPs assess and often treat a child’s ability to be flexible with food at home and in the community.  A hierarchical approach is often utilized, where exposure to new foods occurs as a gradual process over time.
  • As a parent, if your child likes to stick to the same routine at a restaurant, begin with helping your child order from the “adult” menu, knowing that you can request adaptions to certain dishes if needed.  If the prices feel too steep, order a side for the kids, and give them samplings of everything on your plate.  Keep in mind that often the goal is simply experiencing the presence of new foods, so order a side dish that is a favorite food plus present a selection of new options from your plate if you are concerned your child will not eat anything.  Now you and your child have a new routine and the tasting piece occurs once the routine is established.   If you order a salad in the drive-thru, consider skipping the kids’ meal and creating a kid’s sampling of grilled chicken cubes, sunflower seeds, mandarin oranges or other options directly from your salad when you arrive at your destination.   Request an extra packet of dressing if your kids like to dip.
  1. Kids Meals are QUICK! Quick to buy, quick to eat and quick to raise blood sugars and thus, feel satisfied.  I get it – part of today’s hectic lifestyle is shuttling kids to and from activities and often, mealtimes happen while riding in the mini-van.  Fast food chains understand this too – that’s why it’s marketed as “fast food.”
  • In feeding therapy, this reliance on drive-thru food affects progress in therapy.  For example, it’s not uncommon for elementary school kids in feeding therapy to  have trouble eating in the chaotic school cafeteria and be “starving” when a parent picks them up from school.  The quickest, easiest solution: The drive-thru every day after school.
  • In today’s quick-fix society, our children are losing the valuable skill of waiting.  Feeling hungry and then making a snack or meal together to satisfy growling bellies is one way to practice the art of waiting.  Have some pre-cut veggies ready in the refrigerator to nibble on if waiting for the meal is too challenging.  Besides, it’s the perfect time to place them on the counter while your prepping the entrée because you’ve got hunger on your side!  Hint: Blanched veggies, patted dry and then chilled, hold more moisture and taste slightly sweeter to some kids.  The higher moisture content makes them easier to crunch, chew and swallow.  Most blanched fresh vegetables last for several days in the refrigerator.  Remember, keep presenting fresh foods so that the more common option is a healthy one, rather than the oh-so-well marketed processed foods found on many kids’ menus today.

SLPs and parents, what strategies do you use do limit traditional kid food and help kids become more adventurous eaters?  Please comment and share your tips!

Melanie Potock, MA, CCC-SLP, treats children birth to teens who have difficulty eating.  She is the author of Happy Mealtimes with Happy Kids and the producer of the award-winning kids’ CD Dancing in the Kitchen: Songs that Celebrate the Joy of Food!  Melanie’s two-day course on pediatric feeding is  offered for ASHA CEUs and includes both her book and CD for each attendee.  She can be reached at Melanie@mymunchbug.com.

Preventing Food Jags: What’s a Parent to Do?

picky eater

 

As a pediatric feeding therapist, many kids are on my caseload because they are stuck in the chicken nugget and french fry rut…or will only eat one brand of mac-n-cheese…or appear addicted to the not-so-happy hamburger meal at a popular fast food chain. While this may often include kids with special needs such as autism, more than half my caseload consists of the traditional “picky-eaters” who spiraled down to only eating a few types of foods and now have a feeding disorder.  I  even had one child who only ate eight different crunchy vegetables, like broccoli and carrots.  Given his love for vegetables, it took his parents a long time to decide this might be a problem. The point is: These kids are stuck in food jag, eating a very limited number of foods and strongly refusing all others.  It creates havoc not only from a nutritional standpoint, but from a social aspect too. Once their parents realize the kids are stuck, the parents feel trapped as well. It’s incredibly stressful for the entire family, especially when mealtimes occur three times per day and there are only a few options on what their child will eat.

It’s impossible in a short blog post to describe how to proceed in feeding therapy once a child is deep in a food jag.  Each child is unique, as is each family. But, in general,  I can offer some tips on how to prevent this from happening in many families, again, keeping in mind that each child and each family is truly unique.

Here are my Top Ten suggestions for preventing food jags:

#10: Start Early.  Expose baby to as many flavors and safe foods as possible.   The recent post for ASHA on Baby Led Weaning: A Developmental Perspective may offer insight into that process.

#9: Rotate, Rotate, Rotate: Foods, that is.  Jot down what baby was offered and rotate foods frequently, so that new flavors reappear, regardless if your child liked (or didn’t like) them on the first few encounters.  This is true for kids of all ages.  It’s about building familiarity.  Think about the infamous green bean casserole at Thanksgiving.  It’s rare that hesitant eaters will try it, because they often see it only once or twice per year.

#8: Food Left on the Plate is NOT Wasted: Even if it ends up in the compost, the purpose of the food’s presence on a child’s plate is for him to see it, smell it, touch it, hear it crunch under his fork and  perhaps, taste it.  So if the best he can do is pick it up and chat with you about the properties of green beans, then hurray!  That’s never a waste, because he’s learning about a new food.

#7: Offer Small Portions:  Present small samples.  Underwhelming – that’s  exactly the feeling we hope to invoke.   Besides, if a tiny sample sparks some interest and your child asks for more peas, well, that’s just music to your ears, right?  Present the foods in little ramekins, small ice cube trays or even on  tiny tasting spoons used for samples at the ice cream shop.

#6: Highlight Three or Four Ingredients Over Two Weeks:  You can expose kids to the same three or four ingredients over the course of two weeks, while making many different recipes.  For example, here are nine different ways to use basil, tomatoes and garlic.  Remember get the kids involved in the recipe, so they experience the food with all of their senses.  Even toddlers can tear basil and release the fragrance, sprinkling it on cheese pizza to add a little green.   If they just want to include it as a garnish on the plate beside the pizza, that’s a good start, too!

#5 Focus on Building Relationships with FoodThat often doesn’t begin with chewing and swallowing.  Garden, grocery stop, visit the farmer’s market, create food science experiments like this fancy way of separating egg whites from the yoke.  Sounds corny (pardon the pun!), but making friends with food means getting to know food.  I often tell the kids I work with “We are introducing your brain to broccoli.  Brain, say hello to broccoli!”

#4 Don’t Wait for a Picky Eating Phase to Pass: Use these strategies now.  Keep them up, even through a phase of resistant eating.  Learning to be an adventurous eater takes time.

#3 Don’t Food Jag on FAMILY favorites.  In our fast paced life, it’s easy to grab the same thing for dinner most evenings.  Because of certain preferences, are the same few foods served too often?  Ask yourself, are you funneling down to your list of “sure things?”  It’s easy to fall into the trap: “Let’s just have pizza again – at least I know everyone will eat that.”

#2 Make Family Dinnertime Less about Dinner and More about Family.  Why?  Because the more a family focuses on the time together, sharing tidbits of their day and enjoying each other’s company,  the sweeter the atmosphere at the table.  Seems ironic, given this article is focused is on food, but, the strategies noted above all include time together.  That’s what family mealtimes are meant to be: a time to share our day.  Becoming an adventurous eater is part of that process over time.

And the #1 strategy for preventing food jags?  Seek help early.  If mealtimes become stressful or the strategies above seem especially challenging, that’s the time to ask a feeding therapist for help.  Feeding therapy is more than just the immediate assessment and treatment of feeding disorders – the long term goal is creating joyful mealtimes for the whole family.  The sooner you seek advice, the closer you are to that goal.   I hope you’ll visit me at My Munch Bug.com for articles and advice on raising adventurous eaters and solving picky eating issues.  Plus, here are just a few of my favorite resources:

Websites & Blogs

Doctor Yum.com

Spectrum Speech and Feeding.com

Picky Tots BlogSpot

Books

Getting to Yum

Fearless Feeding

Nobody Ever Told Me (or My Mother) THAT!

Facebook

Food Smart Kids

Feeding Matters

Feeding Tube Awareness

 

Melanie Potock, MA, CCC-SLP, treats children birth to teens who have difficulty eating.  She is the author of Happy Mealtimes with Happy Kids and the producer of the award-winning kids’ CD Dancing in the Kitchen: Songs that Celebrate the Joy of Food!  Melanie’s two-day course on pediatric feeding is  offered for ASHA CEUs and includes both her book and CD for each attendee.  She can be reached at Melanie@mymunchbug.com.

Understanding Autism: Restaurant Meltdowns

asd

I sat in a popular restaurant chain and watched an 8 year old boy have a major meltdown at his table.  His mother cringed as lunch time patrons stared.  An irritated couple at a nearby booth got up and moved, but only after glaring at the mother.  I’ll be honest, the child was disrupting my lunch too, but one thing I suspected was that this child had autism.  He appeared to be just like any other child, but the intensity of his outburst was out of proportion to the issue he was yelling about: The waiter had served him waffle fries and he had expected “skinny fries” just like the french fries served at home.

April is National Autism Awareness Month.  The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that 1 in 68 children are reported to have autism (ASD) and most are boys. Chances are, you know someone with autism.

What distinctive characteristics of ASD can affect a child’s ability to adjust to unexpected life events, even something as incidental as waffle fries?  Let’s look very briefly at some of the central features of ASD, while keeping in mind that this a spectrum disorder, with symptoms ranging from mild to severe and this list does not encompass all of the elements of a diagnosis. Just some of the central features that kids with ASD have difficulty with are:

  1. Social interaction, often including social reciprocity or that back and forth communication exchange known as conversation.
  2. Restricted behaviors and the need for “sameness” or the inability to be flexible with change.
  3. Hypersensitive and/or hyposensitive “to sensory aspects of the environment” which can hinder their ability to tolerate different tastes, temperature and/or textures of food and deal with change in general.

As a pediatric therapist,  I assess and treat a child’s ability to allocate specific cognitive resources in the brain to manage day-to-day life.  As adults, we too have to utilize many different parts of our brains throughout the day.  But what happens when we are bombarded with sensory input and suddenly, we have to adjust to unfamiliar stimuli? To understand what it’s like, consider this example:

You are driving the minivan full of kids to soccer practice, radio blaring, kids chattering.  Your brain is operating relatively smoothly, filtering auditory, visual, tactile and other sensations, while remembering to use your turn signal, maintain the speed limit, etc.  Suddenly, the weather changes and it starts to hail.  What’s the first thing you do?  Turn off the radio and tell the kids “Shush…Mommy needs to concentrate on the road.”  Perhaps you even slow down so that you can focus on the sudden change in driving conditions.  You have eliminated as much sensory input as possible so that you can concentrate on the task at hand – driving safely.  Isn’t it interesting that  you were driving perfectly fine until one unpredictable event changed in your environment?

Now consider the child with autism as he attempts to engage in mealtimes.  The reality is that daily life changes as easily as the daily weather report and for him, some days are just like driving through a hailstorm.  This child is already challenged by poor sensory processing; he has limited ability to take in information through all of the senses, process it and filter out the unimportant info, and then act upon only the relevant sensory input.

Now, bring that child to the family dinner table, which is all about social interaction and conversation.  Put a plate of food in front of him which looks and smells completely different from the last meal he was served.   Then, tell him to try that steamed broccoli for the very first time.  He doesn’t get to turn down the sensory input bombarding him at the table and focus just on the broccoli.  Because he has autism, he can’t always filter out which stimuli might be inconsequential and it feels so much safer to follow rigid behavior patterns and never try anything new.  Life for a child with autism is all about sticking to sameness. My role as a therapist is to help the child learn to deal with change.

A 2013 study from the Department of Pediatrics at Emory University indicated that kids with ASD are five times more likely to have feeding problems compared to their peers.  Once feeding difficulties are addressed in the home, restaurants are the next step for their families.  Here, the visual input is completely different and it changes constantly, the inconsistent auditory input can be overwhelming, the fluctuating smells may be interpreted as noxious, etc.   Every input to every sense has changed.   Once again, the child with autism is encountering a hailstorm and has to learn to tune out the distractions and focus on the task at hand – in this case, eating a meal away from home.  In this young man’s case, waffle fries were just too much to handle after managing all of the other sensory stimuli at the restaurant.

Perhaps you are a parent of a child with ASD.  Perhaps you have observed a child whom you suspect may be dealing with the daily challenges  of autism.  Thank you for considering what mealtimes feel like for him and his family.  It does get better, but it is a journey that requires patience from family, friends and the community.

Please share this article with a friend so that we can continue to raise awareness of autism spectrum disorder and if you know someone who loves a child with ASD, do something special for them this month in honor of National Autism Awareness Month – thank you!

Melanie Potock, MA, CCC-SLP, treats children birth to teens who have difficulty eating.  She is the author of Happy Mealtimes with Happy Kids and the producer of the award-winning kids’ CD Dancing in the Kitchen: Songs that Celebrate the Joy of Food!  Melanie’s two-day course on pediatric feeding is  offered for ASHA CEUs and includes both her book and CD for each attendee.  She can be reached at Melanie@mymunchbug.com.

A Creative Approach to Food Allergies and Trick-or-Treating

Oct 32

 

Ever notice how many kids who are in feeding therapy also have food allergies?  With Halloween just around the corner, I’m encountering parents in my practice who are scared to let their food-allergic kids go Trick or Treating.  As their child’s feeding therapist, I try to offer creative strategies to ease their minds and still allow their little munch bug an evening of safe but spooky fun!

Trick or Treat Nirvana (What’s a Parent to Do?) 

Halloween is one of my favorite holidays.  My neighborhood is a child’s Trick or Treating nirvana; street after street of tightly packed  houses, much like enormous Pez® candies crammed inside a spring-loaded Casper the Ghost container. It’s the perfect setting for little fists holding giant plastic pumpkins to collect as many pounds of sugar as humanly possible in the shortest amount of time.  The neighbors are obsessed with decorating their homes to the hilt and consequently our sidewalks are packed with little Batmans, Disney Princesses and giant Rubik’s Cubes negotiating their way to each and every over-the-top decorated home and loading up on anything the neighbor’s offer when the kids shout “TRICK OR TREAT!”

So what’s a parent to do when their child with food allergies so desperately wants to join in on the door to door fun?  Well, keep this in mind: For the kids, Halloween is about ringing a doorbell, shouting “TRICK OR TREAT”,  remembering to say “thank you” as they scurry off to the next house and most of all – giggling non-stop with their friends.  It’s truly about the social experience, and not so much about what gets thrown in the bag.  But for many of my clients, what ends up in their bags is vitally important for safety reasons. Here a few strategies for parents to consider.

Enlist the Help of a Few Neighbors 

1.    Secret Passwords Nobody wants a child to miss out on the big night.  Most friends and neighbors will be thrilled to stash your candy alternatives by their front door.  If your alternative treat needs to be kept separate from other food substances,  be sure to let them know.  If your child is old enough and/or you are not present,  just tell them that  Mrs. Smith needs to hear the secret password (e.g. “monster mash”) because she is saving something just for them.  The last thing you want is Mrs. Smith accidently giving some random fairy princess your child’s special allergen free treat!

2.    Create a “TREASURE HUNT” with clues that lead your little pirate to the buried treasure where X marks the spot.  Give ten clues to ten neighbors; use brown grocery bag paper, black ink and even singe the edges for that authentic “treasure map” look.  Each piece of paper provides the next clue on where to go:  “Yo ho ho, ye pirate gents! Go to the next house with the white picket fence!”  Little do they suspect that the 10th clue will send them back to their own house, where they will discover a giant X and a special treasure buried beneath, just for them!

Tangible Alternatives to Candy

Whether you are planting a few of these with your sweet neighbors or giving them away to the little creatures knocking on your door that night, here are a few tangible alternatives to traditional candy:

1.    Eyeballs (and other spooky treats):  Google that Michael’s coupon or head to your favorite craft store to stock up on creative options for candy.  Whether you are trying to avoid sugar or the top 8 allergens, bringing home a pillow-sack of party favors such as blood-shot super ball eyes, miniature magnifying glasses, Halloween stickers or a tiny decks of cards is still a nice pile of loot for your little goblins to dump on the living room floor when they get home!

2.    My favorite treats are glow-in-the-dark bracelets.  We activate all of them just before the doorbell starts to ring and put them in a clear plastic bowl so they give off an eerie glow when we open the front door.  Trick or Treaters pop them on their wrists and run off to the next house, literally glowing.  Because my nick-name is “safety-mom,” I feel better knowing that everyone’s kids are a bit more visible running around in the dark.

3.   Think outside the box.  Most toy or craft stores have bins of whistles, harmonicas and bubbles to use in replace of candy.  Don’t forget small packets of origami paper, craft buttons, jewelry kits and beads, etc.  There are isles and isles of wonderful candy substitutes that will keep your child busy long after the other kids’ candy is eaten.  Believe me, parents all over town will be eternally grateful to see something creative in their children’s sacks rather than yet another pack of sour gummy worms.  Create a little karma for yourself!

Allergen Free Candy

A spectacular list of allergen-free candy (many, free of the top 8 allergens) is available on The Tender Foodie blog.  Be the “good house” that the kids rave about with the really cool candy.

Got Too Much Candy?  Here’s How to Get Rid of it FAST!
1.    Hold a Candy Auction:  Dig into that Monopoly game and grab those pastel paper bills!  Here’s your child’s chance to hold a candy auction! When all the bidding is over, he gets to count out how many paper bills (dollar amount is now a moot point) he received and trade those in for real money, but half goes into his savings account.

2.    Worth Their Weight in… Dollars:   Finally, a chance to use your bathroom scale and rejoice as the numbers go UP!  Kids get to weigh their loot and get paid $5 for every pound.  The next day, extend the family fun by going to the toy store or a favorite “haunt” to buy something together.

Safety Considerations
In addition to the general safety considerations for all trick-or-treaters noted here,  there are additional safety considerations for children with food allergies:

1.    SEPARATE CANDY:  Make it clear to other adults if alternative treats need to be separate from other food substances due to cross-contamination.
2.    Bring an EPI-PEN and if you are not accompanying your child, make sure his friends know where the pen is stored.

3.    Trick or Treating IN GROUPS only.  As for any child, stay together.

4.    Give your child a fully charged CELL PHONE with emergency numbers on top; make sure her friends know how to use it, too.

5.    Make sure your child is wearing an ID bracelet that is visible despite her costume.

6.    Ask the other children to WAIT to eat their candy until it can be inspected at home.  This is a general safety rule for all kids, but also prevents accidental contact via another child during the excitement of trick or treating.

Expectations – Your’s and Your Child’s
Consider your own expectations and how those may define your child’s expectations for Halloween.  Remember, “It is not necessary for children to have the full blown experience in order for them to have a good time”  Lori Lite (Stress Free Kids)

 

Ask your child what they would like to do.  Perhaps he just wants to be in charge of passing out the glow bracelets while the two of you wear matching glow-in–the-dark Vampire teeth!  So often as parents, we try to do make a huge production out of a holiday because we feel we owe it to our kids.  Funny thing is, most of the time, the kids are just thrilled to be a small part of it as long as they are sharing it with YOU.

So enjoy and be in the moment.  Wear a funny hat.  Tell a spooky story.  Take LOTS of pictures and video, too.  Stick a plastic spider on someone’s chair at dinner.  Don’t be afraid to scream – it’s the one night you can do so with abandon!   Happy Halloween!

 

Note: Portions of this article were originally printed on The Tender Foodie.

 

Melanie Potock, MA, CCC-SLP, treats children birth to teens who have difficulty eating.  She is the author of Happy Mealtimes with Happy Kids and the producer of the award-winning kids’ CD Dancing in the Kitchen: Songs that Celebrate the Joy of Food!  Melanie’s two-day course on pediatric feeding is  offered for ASHA CEUs and includes both her book and CD for each attendee.  She can be reached at Melanie@mymunchbug.com.

Summertime Prep for the School Cafeteria

lunchbox

 

Summer!  Ten luxurious weeks of spitting watermelon seeds, munching on veggies straight from the garden and crafting the perfect s’more over the campfire.  As an SLP who focuses on feeding challenges in children, summer food skills are foremost in my mind this time of year.  However, once a week in the summer, my little clients and their families will focus on preparing to eat in the school cafeteria.  Before you know it, it will be mid-August and those little munch bugs will joining their friends at elementary school, or perhaps all-day kindergarten. For kids who are about to go to their very first day of school, it also means their very first day in a school cafeteria, and that can be quite overwhelming, especially for a child in feeding therapy.

Many kids are truly scared of the school cafeteria. In fact, one little boy I worked  with called it “the Café-FEARia.” Imagine a 5-yea- old, on his first day of school, as he tries to negotiate a sea of kids filing into the school lunchroom, attempting to locate his lunch box among 20 others piled into a giant bin and ultimately squeeze into a tiny place to sit at the assigned table. Now, unlatch that brand spankin’ new lunchbox (how does that latch work, anyway?) and peer inside … the clock is ticking … your little munch bug now typically has 20 minutes left to eat, clean up and get back in line with his class; not the most relaxing lunch for any kid.

 

Introduce Weekly Lunchbox Dinners

Feeding therapy is more than just learning the mechanics of biting, chewing and swallowing.  Generalizing skills to multiple environments is essential.  For kids transitioning to school lunch, introduce once a week “lunch box dinners” where the entire family pretends to eat in the school cafeteria.  At the entrance to the kitchen or dining area, one parent stashes a large bin, just like the kids will find at school.  Each member of the family has their own distinct lunchbox thrown into the bin, along with a few “old” random empty lunchboxes so kids can practice digging down to the bottom to find their own.

 

Once everyone is seated at the table, the child can practice the fine motor skills of unzipping zippers, unfastening Velcro® flaps and opening up containers.  Choose a lunchbox that is easy to open and holds all the food in one container.  It saves precious time!  My favorites are Easy Lunchboxes® and Yumbox® , both simple to open and perfect for cutting the food into bite sized pieces.  I call it “grab and gab” food.  Speaking of “gab,” many of my feeding clients also are working on pragmatic skills with their peers, especially when they are in unfamiliar situations.  As an SLP, I teach the parents to practice this little script: “I’ve got ____ in my lunch!”  In all my years of sitting in school lunchrooms and listening to young kids, it’s ALWAYS the first thing they say to each other.  It’s their traditional conversation starter, usually accompanied by them proudly holding up the celebrity food – the star of the lunchbox. I can attest that I hear just as many kids enthusiastically say “I have fruit today!” as “I have (fill in any junk food here) today!”  Try for  the veggies … it’s really okay … it’s just as cool to have vegetables cut up into stars or other fun shapes so they can announce, “I have CUCUMBER STARS today!”  Better yet, get the kids involved packing the lunches and creating fun shapes so they can exclaim “I made carrot triangles for lunch!”  FunBites® are child safe tools for doing just that.  They may not eat them that day, but they will be comfortable with carrots in their lunchbox, and that’s the first step to trying a new food in a new environment.

 

Once the meal is over, everyone latches their lunchbox and puts it back in the bin, just like at school.  The final piece of advice I offer to families is this: The most important word in the phrase family dinner is “family.”  Enjoy this time!  Happy Summer everyone!

Melanie Potock, MA, CCC-SLP treats children birth to teens who have difficulty eating.  She is the author of Happy Mealtimes with Happy Kids and the producer of the kids’ CD Dancing in the Kitchen: Songs that Celebrate the Joy of Food!  Melanie’s two-day course on pediatric feeding is approved by ASHA and includes both her book and CD.  She can be reached at Melanie@mymunchbug.com.