I read House Rules: A Novel back when it was released. It’s my understanding that this was deemed a fiction. It was based on the research performed by the author. In the novel, the young adult with high functioning autism (HFA) has color-coded his menus for the days of the week. He eats yellow items on one day and brown items another day. This meant two things to me: 1) that his mother set the expectation that his version of picky eating was OK, and 2) that deviation from his expectation will mean he will go hungry. This young adult or any young adult on the spectrum will have to learn to adapt to an unexpected change when his mother isn’t capable of preparing his meals anymore. These barriers and challenges can be prevented by creating a flexible family food culture.
Foster a Flexible Food Culture
Raising a child with autism means having to see a long way into the future. It isn’t all about “will my child be able to live on his own?”, though that, of course, is one of the questions. Living independently means being adaptable, to a certain extent. We live in a world that calls for adaptability, flexible thinking, and shifting focus based on context.
Change is natural. One day, my adult children will make their own food choices, housing choices, and clothing choices. Until that day, I have to teach them to be flexible.
Monday doesn’t mean yellow food or blue sweater or ham sandwich. It means Monday. For my neurotypical 9-year-old, Monday happens to be Library Day. That’s the school’s expectation for fourth grade. Last year, his third grade Library Day was on Thursdays. Change is natural and it has to be OK. All kids have to learn that schedules, menus, wardrobes, addresses, all sorts of things, are subject to change. They have to learn to adapt to change effectively.
Establish a Family Food Culture
My 12-year-old with HFA, was never a picky eater. However, the first three years of his life, he couldn’t eat solid food at all. It wasn’t that he refused it. He couldn’t swallow food with edges. He would throw it right back up again.
Then, one day, he could swallow food successfully. Somewhere, a switch got thrown. He could eat and he wanted to eat. We packed him with calorie dense foods such as yogurt, pasta, fruit, and meat. Right at this point in time, we set up some ground rules for eating at our house to establish our family’s food culture.
Dine at the Same Time – Family Food Culture
Family dining at the same time doesn’t mean we’re run by the clock and dinner is always at 6:00. Instead, it means we sit down to a meal together and eat. This is a good idea for any family for several reasons.
It demonstrates to children that adults value their company.
It provides an opportunity to check in with each other before the day starts and after the day is done.
We get to look each other in the eye (figuratively) and participate in the life of the household together.
Also, while we’re eating our meal, we’re eating, not watching TV or reading.
The act of eating becomes a social experience, and more social engagement is good for everyone in the family.
Eat the Same Meal – Family Food Culture
In our home, the whole family eats the same food at mealtime. Part of this requirement was out of necessity. I’m not a short-order cook. I work full time outside the home, volunteer, and keep the house right-side up.
I’m not going to make separate dinners for children and adults with all that spare time I have. What adults eat, kids eat. Yes, that means the kids eat veggies, fish, and sometimes they eat spicy food. I’m not a maniac, we do have dinners that consist of kid favorites such as pizza, grilled cheese sandwiches and chicken nuggets.
However, we will not serve one special item every single night. That’s unrealistic for our family now and for my son in the future.
Pack Their Own Lunch – Independent Food Culture
In my home, the boys pack their own lunches. They have learned that they can put their own lunches together and make what they like. I do require that they include a piece of fruit.
I’m happy to buy lots of bananas, grapes, apples and oranges. One of those fruit choices will go to school. I can’t monitor whether it actually goes in the kid’s mouth once it gets to school. Ensuring that a healthy good choice is available in the lunch box increases the odds, at least.
Bite Must Be Decent – Family Food Culture
In my home, you don’t have to clean your plate. You do have to eat at least one decent-sized bite of everything. We’ve found that this is a good way to make new foods an experiment and not a fight.
Food is an important part of the social experience, and as such, we have encouraged new tastes, personal responsibility and nutritional variety. So far, so good. My hope is that we have encouraged some flexibility in his sense of taste and his other sensibilities as he matures to adulthood.