special needs child hypersensitive to different textures of food

Why is my special needs child hypersensitive to different textures of food?

Why is my special needs child hypersensitive to different textures of food?

Every autistic child is unique, and there can be various reasons why they may be hypersensitive to different textures of food. Hypersensitivity to food textures is often associated with a condition called sensory processing disorder (SPD) or sensory sensitivity, which can occur in some children with special needs, such as those with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). However, it can also be present in children without any specific diagnosis.

These are some causes why an autistic child might be hypersensitive to food textures:

1. Sensory processing difficulties:

These children have sensory processing challenges, where their nervous system struggles to interpret and respond to sensory input appropriately. This can lead to overreactions or aversions to certain textures of food.

2. Oral motor difficulties:

Children with certain developmental or neurological conditions might have challenges with their oral motor skills, making it harder for them to manage different food textures in their mouths.

3. Previous negative experiences:

A child might have had a negative experience with certain textures of food in the past, leading to aversions and hypersensitivity.

4. Limited diet or exposure:

If a child’s diet has been restricted, they might not have had enough exposure to different textures, making them more sensitive when encountering new ones.

5. Anxiety and stress:

Anxiety or stress can exacerbate sensory sensitivities, making a child more hypersensitive to food textures.

6. Gastrointestinal issues:

Some children with special needs might have gastrointestinal problems or sensitivities, which can contribute to their aversion to certain textures of food.

7. Hyperactivity in the mouth area:

Certain neurological conditions can lead to heightened sensitivity and hyperactivity in the mouth area, making textures more overwhelming.

Healthcare professionals, such as paediatricians, occupational therapists, and speech therapists, have the expertise to understand the specific reasons behind hypersensitivity and develop appropriate strategies to address it. Occupational therapy, in particular, can help children with sensory processing challenges to desensitize to different textures gradually and improve their tolerance. While a dietitian can help increase variety in diet to improve nutritional health.

Additionally, introducing a variety of textures in a supportive and non-threatening way and encouraging the exploration of foods through play and positive reinforcement can also help a child become more comfortable with different food textures over time. Remember to be patient, understanding, and empathetic as each child’s journey to food acceptance may be unique and require time and persistence.

Let me share a parent’s experience without you.

There was a bright and curious autistic child whom I had the chance to treat. He was diagnosed to be in the spectrum. He loved learning about the world around them but struggled with hypersensitivity to different textures of food. The mere sight of certain foods would cause anxiety, and attempting to eat them often led to distress and sometimes tears.

His parents were determined to help their child overcome these challenges and sought the guidance of a skilled occupational therapist. The therapist had experience working with children with sensory processing difficulties. She began creating a safe and supportive environment for the autistic child during therapy sessions. She introduced playful activities using various textures, such as squishing playdough, playing with finger paints, and exploring sensory bins filled with rice and beans. Gradually, the therapist introduced food items with textures similar to the ones in the sensory play. For instance, she started with soft and smooth foods like yoghurt and mashed potatoes.

After changes

Over time, the therapist noticed that his anxieties began to lessen, and they started showing more curiosity towards the food items. Using positive reinforcement and praise, the therapist encouraged his progress, allowing them to build confidence and trust in the process.

The therapist collaborated closely with his parents and me with the diet to work together to create a diverse and well-balanced diet plan that included foods with a range of textures. Slowly, his parents introduced new foods into their son’s meals, ensuring each introduction was gradual and non-threatening.

As time went by, Alex’s willingness to try new foods expanded. With the therapist’s and my guidance and the support of their parents, this autistic child developed coping strategies to manage his hypersensitivity. His parents also learned to focus on other aspects of the dining experience, such as the aroma and taste of foods they enjoyed, to distract from any texture-related discomfort.

With the support of diet management in a creative and empathetic approach, combined with the loving support from his parents, made a significant impact on his life. They became more adventurous with their food choices, and mealtimes transformed from stressful events into enjoyable family moments.

Though challenges remained, the progress he made was heartening. With ongoing therapy and a balanced diet, he continued to explore and embrace a broader range of textures, discovering new flavours and expanding their palate. The journey wasn’t always easy, but it was filled with determination, growth, and most importantly, love and understanding. 

Moreover, with the help of therapy and a supportive family, his hypersensitivity to different textures of food gradually diminished, opening up a world of culinary delights and enriching experiences.

What is the role of diet and other therapy on an autistic child with hypersensitivity?

1. Gradual Exposure and Desensitization:

Start by introducing small amounts of new foods with similar textures to those the child is already comfortable with. Over time, gradually increase the portion size and diversify the textures. Patience is key during this process, as rushing can lead to heightened anxiety and aversion. The goal is to help the child become more accustomed to different textures without overwhelming them.

2. Sensory-Friendly Mealtime Environment:

Reduce distractions during meals to help the child focus on the food and the eating experience. Consider the lighting, noise level, and seating arrangements to ensure a calm and comfortable setting. Providing utensils or cutlery that are adapted to the child’s needs, such as using soft silicone spoons or forks with ergonomic handles, can also make a significant difference in their eating experience.

3. Food Play and Positive Reinforcement:

Engage them in interactive activities that involve touching, smelling, and exploring different textures of food outside of mealtime. This can be done through sensory bins, cooking sessions, or finger painting with food-safe items. Positive reinforcement is crucial during these activities. Praise the child’s efforts and curiosity, even if they do not immediately try new food. Celebrate each step forward, no matter how small, to build their confidence and enthusiasm for food exploration.

Remember, every child with autism is unique, and what works for one may not work for another. It’s important to consult with professionals, such as occupational therapists and dietitians, who specialize in working with children with autism and sensory sensitivities. By combining these secrets with personalized strategies and a patient, supportive approach, caregivers can empower children to develop a more diverse and enjoyable relationship with food. 

Suhana Shriyan
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