I have a theory. My theory is that many (but not all) Asperger kids have an eating disorder.
Not a psychological eating disorder, like teenage girls who wants to waste away. But a physiological eating disorder.
Their bodies don’t know how to eat.
I know, it’s not in any of the textbooks, and nobody really talks about it. But how else can you explain it?
1. When it comes to eating, many Aspie kids will go down with the ship.
The old saying is If he’s hungry enough, he’ll eat it. That makes sense. Otherwise, how else did the species survive?
So you’re supposed to put a plateful of food that is outside of his six tolerated food items in front of him. And after a few tantrums, he’ll eat it.
I’ve seen a two-year-old Aspie choose to lose weight. And the tantrums? They had to do with low blood sugar and starvation.
So Grandma’s advice doesn’t work. The doctor’s advice doesn’t work. The dietician’s advice doesn’t work. We are dealing with a problem that the world hasn’t confronted yet.
2. Many Aspies have intense reactions to flavours and textures in food.
Like, intense. They hate everything. Combining foods makes it worse.
My theory here is that Aspie kids experience each flavour and texture separately. Their taste buds and brain taste centres don’t mix the food into one joyful experience. So too many flavours and textures is jangling.
Over time, very slowly, Aspie kids can be coaxed to eat a wider variety of foods, provided you don’t expect them to eat what we eat. View the slideshow Living on Thin Air for ideas on how to do that.
3. Many Aspies have difficulty with chewing and swallowing.
Many Aspie babies have a hard time learning to nurse. Their moms give up and go onto formula. But I’ve heard of moms who had to massage their baby’s jaw to get him/her to swallow the milk in his/her mouth. Baby just had a mouthful and wasn’t doing anything with it.
As they start eating meat, they overchew. They chew and chew and chew — and don’t know when to swallow. Sure, many kids have a hard time with chewing meat. But chewing pasta? Fish? Bananas? Should it take five minutes for that bite to be chewed?
The overchewing might have to do with the difficulties with swallowing. One Aspie teen told me he thought his throat was too small. He felt as if he had to push the food down. Okay, maybe that has something to do with the tension that comes from anxiety issues. But the result is a hard time eating.
Then there’s the gagging reflex. It can be caused by taste or texture or just the feel of the ball of food at the back of the tongue. Or it can be caused by the sights and sounds of people eating. Oversensitive senses balk at the confusing sensory mess called eating.
4. Many Aspies don’t seem to feel when they’re hungry or full, or at least not in the right amounts.
This may have to do with anxiety. When your brain is preoccupied with tense thoughts, it can’t focus on how the body feels. Or it may have to do with weak body awareness. Whatever. They don’t know when they need to eat more.
The result is low weight and poor growth.
So what can a parent do?
1. Get educated about sensory issues.
Understand that the behaviour isn’t psychological or deliberate. You can view the slide show Living on Thin Air to get some basic ideas.
2. Focus on fats.
We’ve been brainwashed over the past 30 years to think that fats are bad, that fats cause heart disease. But that old myth has been busted. Fats are good, and human beings are perfectly evolved to eat high-fat diets (but we aren’t at all evolved to eat high-carb diets).
Fats are great for problem eaters because they’re packed with calories and they don’t spike the insulin. That means less bouncing and fidgeting, which ends up burning calories.
Here are some good fat foods: sunflower seeds, cheese, high-fat yogurt, salad oil, olives, avocadoes, meat, eggs, fish, cream. Put more of these on your kid’s plate, along with fruit and vegetables, rather than starchy, low-nutrient foods like pasta and bread.
3. Try voice, jaw, and throat relaxation exercises.
I have no idea if these will work. But tightness in the throat can cause swallowing problems, just the same as it causes voice problems. So professional voice therapists might be able to help.
Your kid might be holding his tongue wrong. The tongue should rest cradled in the bottom jaw. It shouldn’t be plastered to the roof of the mouth. Even getting your kid to learn to release the tongue and let it fall would be a good first step. Eventually, he can learn to let the throat fall open too, and all the tension fall out of his jaw.
To test how relaxed her jaw is, ask her to breathe in and out slowly through the nose. If her throat is relaxed and open, she should be able to feel the air blowing against her throat.