An important part of my day is our family dinner. I will plan meals a day or more in advance (sometimes) for the sole purpose of a family meal. If you are a parent, I’m sure you have heard about the importance of dining together. I buy into the fact that sharing meals together creates family cohesiveness and opportunity for communication. I have no idea if our meals will prevent drug addiction or deliquent behavior during my children’s teen years. I sincerely hope that I won’t need to address these issues, but for now I’m content with my reasoning being completely personal and family oriented.
Having an autistic child with a very limited diet makes these dinners very challenging. My son is not on any specialty diets or anything like that. Our problem is that he only eats a handful of foods. My advance planning for each meal is primarily due to the fact that my two children allow little time for meal prep. I usually steal moments and stagger my efforts, throughout the day or days, so that it will all come together by dinner time each night.
Wondering what takes so long? No, I am not preparing a nine course, Italian or exotic feast. Usually it is just simple chicken dishes, casseroles and normal home cooking. Many parents with autistic children perform a juggling act to get, not 1 meal, but 2 on the table at the same time. The specific diet requirements can make meal preparation and timing very hectic. Add in the demands for bathroom assistance, sibling referreeing, boo boo’s, messes that need cleaning, etc. It is amazing that most of the meal isn’t burnt by the end. Meal prep is a high stress job in my household and worth the effort. I guess my reason is simple. My son can finally sit down to eat with us, with very little outbursts of emotion and necessary distraction. Meals weren’t always this “easy”.
As a baby and in a high chair, my son (who is autistic) would need quiet time to eat to get through his meal successfully. If there were any distractions, or people sitting at the table that were unusual, he would cry. Even conversation had to be kept to a minimum because it proved to be too overstimulating for him. As a toddler/preschooler, my son had a hard time sitting at the table at all. He couldn’t sit still for more than a couple of minutes. I always fixed a plate for him, but more times than not, he would need to leave. Understanding his difficulties, we allowed his departure and hoped, with routine and time, he would begin to share in our family dining experience. Gradually, we introduced some favorite toys to bring to the table to provide him with self stimulating feedback. They kept him motivated to stay at the table longer, while satisfying his need for input. You may think such a distraction defeats the purpose of family dining, but when you are dealing with a child on the spectrum with autism, there are no rules. They need what they need and I provide my son with what I call “tools” to get through a typically normal event. In this case it is eating dinner at the table.
When I introduce anything to my son, I guess I have a very distinct method that has worked for him. I begin by establishing the routine, then the expectation with supports, and finally the action or behavior without supports (if possible). Let us fast forward to how our meals are now. My son expects family dinner daily. As I begin my meal preparation, he (relentlessly) begins his repetative questioning, “is it dinner time, mom?” He is a full participant in table setting and clean up. When I give him the go ahead, he runs through the house shouting, “DINNER TIME! DAD, DINNER TIME!”
Though he is allowed to be excused after his meal, my son confirms the importance of our family meals everyday as he runs through the house so unbelievably excited to eat with us. We have weaned the toys for input and enjoy amusing conversation as only a 3 and 6 year old can supply, as well as the necessary clinking of glasses for toasting.