Written by Therapy Focus Speech Pathologist Lisa Hargraves and Occupational Therapist Alice Kettle.
Mealtimes can be very stressful for parents of children with tricky behaviours and fussy eating habits.
But an approach called ‘Sense-ational Mealtimes’ developed by Gillian Griffiths and Denise Stapleton is helping parents better understand mealtime challenges and supporting them to set realistic goals.
The approach is aimed at children who:
- eat a small range of foods
- avoid entire food groups
- refuse to sit and eat with the family at mealtimes
- react negatively when presented with new foods and/or
- insist on the same food at each mealtime
All of which are commonly experienced by children with autism.
The Sense-ational Mealtimes approach includes strategies such as:
- How to prepare your child’s senses for mealtimes
- How to put a time limit on mealtimes
- How to position your child so s/he is supported during mealtimes
- How to talk about feelings and sensations during mealtimes
- How to increase your child’s appetite
- How to adapt favourite meals to suit each member of the family
Initially an information session is provided to families using the Sense-ational Mealtimes approach, which helps parents explore their child’s nutritional needs, feeding behaviours and sensory experiences at mealtimes.
One of the most useful tools to support parents to understand the process of food acceptance is a visual diagram called the ‘Sensory Whirlwind’.
The Sensory Whirlwind supports parents to identify how their child is currently experiencing a particular food and how to take steps toward their child eventually eating that food.
For example, a child who dislikes carrots may have learned to accept seeing the food on their parents’ plates but is not yet ready to touch it. In this scenario, the parents are encouraged to talk about the food and show enjoyment when eating it, without pressuring their child to touch it or try it. Once the child is comfortable seeing it on their parents’ plates, parents may then try placing the carrot on the child’s plate. Again, there is no pressure for the child to touch it or try it. Over time, as the child becomes comfortable with the carrot on their own plate, they may take the next step of touching it and maybe even bringing it to their lips.
The time a child takes to move through each step of the Whirlwind will vary greatly. It can be a slow process, but taking it gradually can help to develop trust between the child and parents at mealtimes.
Another aspect of the approach encourages parents to reflect on their own past experiences of food when they were growing up. It is important for parents to know and understand their own feelings and sensory preferences around food in order to help their child.
When a child feels safe and supported by their family to explore foods, there is a greater chance of success at building up the range of foods that they will accept at mealtimes.
For more information about Sense-ational Mealtimes, visit www.sense-ationalmealtimes.com.au.
To enquire about signing up for the program visit www.sense-ationalmealtimes.com.au/contact/.
For more information about how Therapy Focus can help with mealtime management issues visit www.therapyfocus.org.au/mealtime-management.