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Autism and the School Cafeteria: Four Tips to Help Kids Eat

by Melanie Potock MA
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The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that all students get at least 20 minutes to eat lunch, but many public elementary schools give kids just 20 minutes to enter, eat and exit the chaos of the cafeteria. Students often receive less time to get nutritious meal in their bellies than state governments provide for adult hourly wage-earners. For example, in Colorado, the law requires employers to provide an uninterrupted 30-minute lunch period.

Not so for many kids, including those with sensory challenges and autism spectrum disorder (ASD). For children with ASD, sensory overload in the lunchroom may impair their ability to focus on eating a nutritious lunch. New smells, lights and movement bombard their senses, in addition to unpredictable noises from the kitchen, lunch trays, cash registers and more. If the child is receiving feeding treatment, he may be in early stages of becoming an adventurous eater and may find eating in new stimulating environments especially challenging. He might need more support than some kids to deal with the sensory assault.

I use these four practical tips to help kids with sensory processing challenges focus on entering, eating and exiting the school cafeteria in a short amount of time:

  • Practice, practice, practice: This article offers tips for practicing the cafeteria routine at home with younger kids during the summer months, but it’s not too late to start now.
  • Create a cue card: It serves multiple purposes! Sew a vinyl pocket on the inside flap of your child’s lunchbox, as described in this tutorial.
    • cue cardAdd a cue card that uses pictures or words to help them stay focused. It might be as simple as “Remember to drink your milk!” or as detailed as the card pictured at right, which I used for an 8-year-old. He needed rules that he and I typed together on his computer to help him remember to eat or he would freeze and even put his head under the table. Over time, as he became more comfortable, he was able to listen to his own body’s cues, filter out external stimuli and eat on his own without the cue card. His vinyl pocket eventually became a spot for a lunch love-note from his parents: “Have a great day! Love you!”
    • For smaller kids with ASD, being able to lift the flap of a lunchbox and unobtrusively block out any visual stimuli gives them a chance to regroup before lowering the flap and interacting with friends again.
    • The vinyl pocket also serves as a reminder to staff how on to interact with your child. Use the tutorial to sew a pocket on the outer flap too, if needed. Place reminders for the staff in these outer pockets, such as:
      • “Please let my child eat what he wants. He is learning to tune in to his own hunger signals.”
      • “Please gently remind my son to drink his milk – it’s often all the food he gets at lunch right now.”
      • If you are concerned that well-meaning school staff easily turn into food police who may feel the need to comment on the limited selection of foods in your child’s lunchbox, try this: “My daughter is learning to eat new foods. The foods you see may not appear “healthy” but they are a part of her journey to becoming a more adventurous eater. Thank you for not commenting on her choices today.”
  • Send no more than five foods to school and all in one, easy-open container. I’ve started counting and kids bring an average of seven different baggies or containers of various foods, with the parent’s hope that “they’ll eat at least one of these!” But it’s overwhelming and most kids don’t unpack everything in their lunchbox. Try a bento box. My favorites are the Yumbox or EasyLunchboxes. Both offer quick-and-easy-open lids (especially important if a child has fine-motor challenges) and the child’s entire lunch goes in the partitioned container. Pack it with “grab and gab” food like bite-size sandwiches, fruit, veggies, etc., to create a smorgasbord of nutrition that quickly fills bellies while kids sit and chat. As a speech-language pathologist, I want to support my kids in pragmatics and other social language. Providing an easy-open, easy-to-eat meal gives them time to try to talk to friends and a chance to practice social skills.
  • EAT UP, not clean up: When the lunchroom staff gives the five-minute warning that lunch is almost over, I suggest that they announce it this way: “Five more minutes! That means EAT UP, not clean up” to the kids. When the kids hear only “Five more minutes!” they panic and immediately begin to close their lunchboxes and line up to leave. One other strategy: Ask parents to have “clean-up races” at home with their kids, using the child’s packed lunchbox at a meal. How many seconds does it really take to close the lid, pack up and perhaps even recycle? Thirty seconds at the most – which leaves an extra 4-½ minutes devoted to eating. When time is of the essence, those minutes count!

What tips do you find help kids eat their lunch, even in the chaos of the school cafeteria? I hope you’ll share them in the comments below!

Melanie Potock, MA, CCC-SLP, treats children, birth to teens, who have difficulty eating. She is the co-author of “Raising a Healthy, Happy Eater: A Parent’s Handbook—A Stage by Stage Guide to Setting Your Child on the Path to Adventurous Eating” (Oct. 2015), 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@mymunchbug.com

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