We had the amazing opportunity to attend the Marcus Autism Center for an evaluation recently, after spending 18 months on a waiting list. I remember filling out the 48 pages of paperwork required for this evaluation, and in looking back at my responses, I just cried at my own desperation. I was lost. My sweet baby was regressing in a HUGE way- her beautiful social attitude and her strong verbalism were being replaced with aggression and loud screams and grunts. She was just not the same child.
Let me be clear- this wasn’t a sudden surprise to us. My girl was diagnosed with autism when she was 12 months old, and we’ve been aggressive with therapeutic intervention ever since. But it’s been a hard road, and had gotten much harder as she’d gotten older. Our trip to the Marcus Center was intended to work on Celia’s eating habits- mostly because her habits (at the time we filled out the forms and applied for the wait-list) were extraordinarily exclusive. She ate waffles, peanut butter sandwiches, crackers, and pizza. That was it. No fruits or vegetables, no meats, and very little protein. She loved candy and chocolate milk, and savory foods like processed chips and snack mixes. And of course these eating habits were destroying her body from the inside. We had to take so many steps to keep her body functioning, and it was affecting our family dynamic in a big way. (Can you imagine a world where 3 out of 4 kids have to eat a grown up meal, while someone else who appears normal gets to eat pizza every night? That was miserable, believe me.) I had everyone else in our family eating a plant-based, nutrient-dense diet, but no matter what I tried, I couldn’t get Celia to do it.
Enter the amazing therapist. Ms. B, who we looooove, is an incredible, energetic, experienced speech therapist, who opened our girl’s eyes to the world of food. She taught us how to introduce new foods to Celia, and thanks to her help, on that visit to the Marcus Center, they praised us for her diet and her willingness to try new foods, and told us she was “so high-functioning” she was beyond their help- that their program was more geared towards parents who were in the state we found ourselves 18 months before. Friends, in 18 months we transformed my 10-year old from a wild, aggressive, nearly-nonverbal ball of anxiety to a pleasant, social, considerate tween. There is nothing I wouldn’t have given to achieve such a change.
So how did we do it, and what are we doing now? Here it is:
Start small. We didn’t start insisting she eat lentil curry right away. Instead, we started with basics. Applesauce in a squeeze pouch like all the other kids at school, but hers were organic and had a veggie puree in them. (We like Target’s Simply Balanced brand squeeze applesauce with carrots or spinach.) Then we worked in squeeze yogurt. Again, all organic. (Go ahead and assume organic with everything I say here- the pesticides in food are full of endocrine-disruptors, which will have a tremendous negative effect on the behaviors and hormonal balance of a child with autism.) Since she liked chips and savory snacks, we introduced pretzel chips and hummus- a HUGE hit. And all of those were introduced over a period of WEEKS, with small introductions first, allowing her to lick, crunch, and play with foods first to get a good understanding of what they were.
Follow their lead. Since she liked pizza so much, we tried pizza pasta. She took plain pasta to speech therapy and tried it there first. Then at home, I showed her how we could make pasta just like pizza- we put it in a pan, topped it with tomato sauce, then with cheese and baked it just like pizza. This opened the door for her new favorite, and a godsend in terms of healthy food for her- zucchini noodles. I no longer even use pasta in our house- it’s strictly zoodles around here. And because she was comfortable with the pasta idea, she’s enjoyed it.
Give them time. The concept of food for a kid with autism is the same as anything else- it’s a sensory experience. If they aren’t comfortable touching food with their hands, chances are they aren’t going to put it in their mouths, where they can’t see it at all. It was hard for me to let Celia take tiny bites, lick her food, hold it in her hand or move it around on her plate, but once I realized that’s how she familiarizes herself with it, I let it go. And now we have a method there for trying something new.
Identify their nutrition gaps. This was huge for us. We will forever be battling a nutrition gap, but it’s getting smaller. A big win for us is probiotics. Gut health is so important, especially in kids with autism. Our favorite brand is Garden of Life Kids, which is sold at Whole Foods. If you ask at the counter, they almost always have coupons available too. Another challenge: not all vitamins are bio-available, meaning once they go into the body, they don’t necessarily convert into well-absorbed nutrients. So do your research and look for organic, (not synthetic) vitamin supplements.
So what does she eat now? This is the exciting part. She eats a lot these days: smoothies (I sneak in flaxseed meal to a combination of frozen fruit, a fresh banana, and almond milk), scrambled eggs (with ketchup), snacks like veggie applesauce, yogurt, chips and hummus, the usual PB&J (but with reduced sugar organic fruit jelly), dried fruits like raisins, cranberries and cherries, zoodle pasta in a variety of sauces, and some trail mix nuts and berries. Not too bad, right?
The most important differentiator in terms of food for us is to reduce her sugar intake and to cut out as much inorganic food as possible. It’s true- I cook almost everything we eat from scratch, and our kids drink water or almond milk and nothing else. It isn’t easy and it takes a lot of intention and planning, but it works. I will totally be that mom and say no to Mott’s applesauce, Kool-Aid or Capri Sun, and gummy bears. Yes, it makes me unpopular, but until someone else wants to come to my house and explain to my other children why their big sister is screaming that she hates them, I’ll stick to what helps my Celia be her best self- and friends, food is the answer.
Got questions? Want to know more? Something similar work for you, or have ideas to share? Let me know. I’m here.