I've seen many a PDA parent complain about their childrens' unexplained eating habits, so I thought I'd talk you all through my personal food woes. Enjoy!
Food is a demand. You have to eat in order to survive; it's a demand enforced by our own bodies, and by others. Meal times are often scheduled, and demands at a specific time generally only add to the worry. I'd say that the best comparison that I can imagine for a neurotypical person would perhaps be going to the dentists- it's not going to be fun, you're going to have strange things in your mouth, feel powerless and slightly violated. Let me tell you about something I still haven't properly dealt with: school milk. Every day in Year One, I would stare at the clock and dread 10.15am. We were forced to drink a carton of milk, and couldn't go outside for break until the deed was done. I'd never had any particular issue with milk, but after that daily demand, I've held a grudge.
Whilst we're on the topic of foods I have a personal vendetta against... Brussel sprouts. I was aged 3, and at nursery. Despite my insistence that I didn't like them, I was forced to try one. I was sick. Fifteen years later, I will never, ever consider letting one plague my mouth again. Once a 'food battle' has begun for me, it's very hard to undo it. As my issues with food are often demand-based, I'm left with significant trust issues and upset as a result, so never want to touch those foods again. I still remember an argument with my mum when I was 12; I didn't want to eat (probably to try to regain control from another demand) and complained that she was trying to put something into my body that I didn't want there. She told me I was being overly dramatic, and nobody can blame her for that. However, for me that was no exaggeration of how I felt; I felt physically violated.
As well as food 'rules' enforced by parents, there are plenty more food rules. Even table manners can fall under this category. I refused to sit at the dining table for years- it was just one demand too many! I was convinced that our dining chairs 'hurt my back' - nonsense. There were enough rules, and eating things at set times, eating things I perhaps didn't want to, and being told where to eat too, was all too much. Meanwhile, society subtly tells us what we should and shouldn't eat- there are far too many nonsense rules! Women say that they're being 'good' when they refuse cake. I not only have issues with this from a feminist point of view, but a PDA one, too. It's distorting for any child, but also very toxic for PDA children- the association of morality with food is bound to set your child up for disturbed eating habits, as well as adding to an already excessive list of rules that they feel the need to avoid.
Rules around waste are also present- the idiotic remarks about "the starving children in Africa" only increase the pressure surrounding the already present demand to eat, and increased anxiety seldom leads to demands being fulfilled. The fear of being wasteful causes me to either dramatically overeat, or dramatically undereat. Neither leave me happy. Even if you don't spew out such poppycock to your children, I'm willing to bet that the dinner ladies at school most certainly will. Moving on to a more logical rule; five fruit and vegetables a day. Consider that to be five demands. That's more than enough to cause a meltdown. The importance of this is preached in schools, on television, in supermarkets- the list is endless, it's everywhere! One day your child didn't know about the rule, next day they're greeted by five new daily demands. This rule isn't just on certain days, either- it's five demands every day, for the rest of their life.
Scenarios also add to anxiety, and lead to meltdowns. Buffets are often an issue as there's a lot of choice, so selecting foods can be overwhelming. However, one of my biggest fears, perhaps most present in my early teen years, was that I would be invited to a restaurant I wasn't familiar with. I have a fear of any new restaurant that is not an Italian, where I can ostensibly get a mediocre pizza at worst. If not, you'll find my on Google, searching for the menu, restaurant reviews, hygiene ratings, and if they allow 18 year olds to order off the children's menu. I'm terrified of being unprepared or not in control. Add the noise and lights in restaurants to such an issue, and you have the perfect recipe for a meltdown. The tendency restaurants have to add condiments and such things into the food despite not stating so is also a source of great consternation for me, but I'll talk about such monstrosities later in this post. Eating at friends' houses is another difficult scenario, that often builds up anxiety deep inside of me. There's a certain tension I feel when in someone else's home, and a certain obligation to eat everything placed in front of me, no matter what it is. If you don't think that this has a significant impact, please enjoy this list of things I've unwillingly eaten; tomatoes at Daisy's, pizza crusts at Silvie's, purple lettuce at Georgina's, jam sandwiches at Adam's, chocolate ice cream at Natasha's, sweetcorn at Rebecca's, baked beans at Nicole's, cauliflower at Kathryn's, quiche at Jessica's. All of those incidents happened in primary school, many of them being over twelve years ago. Also, I was always the last in the lunch hall at school, as the anxiety from all of the demands at school made me feel sick, as did the pressure to eat.
Even the process of eating is full of demands- the number of which obviously depends on the child's age, but it's worth noting that cooking involves planning, preparation, tidying and washing up afterwards... personally, all of that makes packeted/fast food awfully appealing to me. Snacking also feels less complex, and like less commitment than preparing a legitimate meal.
Now it's time for a list of food qualities I hate- as to list the actual foods would take far too long, it'll be easier to discuss general aspects.
•I hate very watery foods- they confuse me, and taste very strong and distinctive to me (think celery, cucumber and broccoli)
•Peppery/spicy foods feel like an assault
•Exotic cheeses- the smell puts me off, as does the texture
•Meat on the bone greatly disturbs me
•Foods with seeds in- I like the taste but detest the texture of the following- kiwi, pomegranate, raspberries, blueberries, bread with lots of seeds.
•Multiple textures in foods (soups or juices that aren't smooth, baked beans, meat in sauces
•Chewy foods greatly offend me
•Different foods touching (I eat my steak and salad separate, my bolognese can't touch the spaghetti)
•Differing brands; we once had to make a detour to a local shop in Spain as I didn't like the hotel's ketchup
•Slimy foods disgust me; when I was young, my mum cut my grapes up in half- I wouldn't allow her to place the 'slimy' side on my tongue.
This is where things get a bit more bleak; I cannot chew my food up properly. Chewed up food in my mouth feels absolutely repulsive! I can't stand that feeling, and have been known to gag when properly chewing my food up. I'm sure it won't be awfully surprising, given the length of this post on my historic food issues, that I have an eating disorder. At one point, when I self-induced vomiting a lot, it became incredibly apparent that I don't chew my food up properly. There were whole pieces of pasta in my sick, completely unchewed. Other pieces would perhaps be halved at most. For me, a sandwich is around 8 bites, and 30 chews; I cannot stand the feeling of food in my mouth.
All of this leads me to the topic of health. I've seen a lot of parents saying that their children have unhealthy lifestyles, and so do I. I've already highlighted many of the food issues that PDA sufferers may have, but let's touch upon the issue of exercise. If your child isn't very active, and doesn't have an interest in being active, I can almost guarantee the reason why; they're tired. PDA is exhausting, trust me. Surviving in a world full of demands leaves you chronically tired, and it almost goes without saying they we're all sleep deprived (tip- don't set a bedtime). When living a sedentary life leaves you completely exhausted, why would you want to integrate physical activity too? Also, scheduled tasks are a demand- any form of exercise lesson/class falls into this category. With the lack of exercise, and the issues with fruit and vegetables that many PDA children seem to have, it's no wonder that many parents report that their children have 'toilet issues' -this will be heightened if they struggle to chew their food.
My opinion on issues like these, where PDA children are prone to struggling, is often the same; my number one piece of advice is to cut corners. You are not being a bad or lazy parent by doing so consciously- you are making your child's life less of a living hell. Aim for three pieces of fruit and vegetables a day- that's two fewer demands. Let them take multivitamins to keep them in better health; if milk traumatised them like it did with me, give them calcium supplements, or another calcium-rich food. If it's feasible in your lifestyle, don't have dinner at a set time, or let them eat more casually; perhaps a tray on the sofa would be less stressful. Never say any nonsense along the lines of "you have to eat everything" and never provide incentives/punishments (see my 'Guinea Pig Trauma' post for more details). I'd also like to emphasise that high anxiety often heightens sensory issues and experiences. If your child is anxious, it's not a good time to introduce new foods, or foods they don't particularly like. If they feel relatively calm, they may be more open to eating a more varied diet.
As far as I'm concerned, unless your child required a specific diet for a medical condition, or their poor diet is having a moderate effect on their health, just leave them to it- you're not being complacent, you're being realistic. They're struggling enough, without needing to resent food too. Food can be a way for people to feel in control, when everything else in their life feels out of control. Food can also be a source of comfort. You really don't want them overthinking food.
I'll leave you with some depressing facts... most Autism websites and charities estimate that 2% of the population have ASD. Kings College estimate that people with ASD make up 20% of people suffering with eating disorders. If you search 'ASD and eating disorders' online, plenty of reputable sources appear. Don't make food a big deal.