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ImageWhen I read the poignant story of the broken hamburger, my eyes teared up for two reasons.

At first, they brimmed with gratitude– the collective sort of gratitude of the hundreds of thousands of Facebook users who “liked” the story about the kindness of a chain restaurant waitress.

Thank you, waitress, who heard a mom apologetically request a second hamburger for her young daughter affected by autism.

The original burger was “broken”, she had said, and her daughter could not eat it.

Consistent with the pattern discussed in diagnostic manuals and tools used to assess or document the presence of autism, or behaviors consistent with that label, the young girl in the story “preferred sameness”, and had difficulty participating when the environment contained a salient difference– even when that difference was presented in the context of a hamburger (usually a highly preferred, even a ‘favorite’, food).

The young girl has not yet learned to approach– and to enjoy– a hamburger different from how it appeared in her normal routine.

And it’s critically important not to judge. First, the list of what we don’t know is long. For example, we don’t know, but it may be progress just to sit with the family eating at a restaurant. We don’t know how hard they may already have worked, how far their family has already come, or whether tremendous problem behavior used to occur during dinner, and a request for ‘new hamburger, mom’ was a triumph. Learning to request a break, help, or the little things that ameliorate our daily troubles like a snack, a special blanket, or a teddy bear, takes lots of practice and shaping. Second, peculiarities of childhood eating are not so unusual; a family member diagnosed with nothing that I know of, used to refuse to eat the ‘handles’ on her french fries. That’s a lot of wasted potatoes, but I’m pretty sure her mom was choosing battles carefully.

How we address this situation depends in part on how we frame it.

Do we fight battles FOR our children, or WITH our children? Is food refusal a temporary battle to be won at each meal anew, or is food exploration and acceptance a new path to be walked with families?

Back to the story’s intent. Consider the perspective of the waitstaff, who is tasked with responsibility of honoring most appropriate customer requests. Upon reflection, I remain touched by the waitress’ readiness to honor the request so the child might enjoy the hamburger.

But my eyes also teared up for another reason.

Sometimes, children live in an environment indefinitely where most things in their food repertoire don’t change, and as a practitioner, I’ve observed students go for years not being challenged while families suffer in silence. How many dinners will she endure waiting until getting home to eat, because the favorite dish was not on the menu? How many times will her family go out without her, or select to not try going out, because there may be no appropriate foods for her on the menu? She may not have the opportunity to encounter (and eventually approach) diversity, and avoidance may be strengthened each time her parents’ requests to make the food a certain way, are honored in front of her. She may even avoid birthday parties or the community, because the food and setting is so different, and there has been very little practice to become comfortable in “different” situations.

As parents of neurotypical learners often point out to me, and as the little girl in my family illustrated, preferences don’t have to make sense, they may be comical at first, there is a broad range of “normal”, and it’s up to each family to decide how to, whether, and when to address the issue of food selectivity. Does the child have such a limited range of preferred foods, that a nutritionist and doctor are concerned?

Here is a good question to ask: how does the child handle being “challenged” or presented a challenge food? Does the child prefer something so much she will refuse (and refuse to try) every variant, to the point of disruptive behavior?

If the answer is “yes”, no matter the profile of your learner, it may still be helpful to address.

We can provide practice situations in supportive environments when sampling and practicing and trying differences is made comfortable, expected, familiar and do-able.

To families raising children with limited variety of food acceptance, or who eat very low volumes of foods or eat around only one or two family members:

  1. Practice eating with others before being shocked and disappointed that the child doesn’t eat the first cupcake she’s ever seen at a birthday party.

  2. Practice situations that teach us broken hamburgers taste the same as whole ones.

  3. Practice variants of seating arrangements, food that comes on different plates and with different utensils, and foods that arrive “contaminated” with a sauce (to use the phrase of one child in feeding therapy).

  4. Doing it for the first time in a familiar environment also makes it easier, and then practicing little by little in “the real world” helps.

Cusp Emergence hosts “snack parties” that provides practice for children learning to eat in community settings or eat with others before it is time for preschool or school lunches and snacks.

It is often helpful during the transition phase, as our clients transition away from early intervention to preschool, or change from weekly feeding support with a therapist to parent-only support 

Bottom Line:

You can do it, and we can help. Practicing the hard thing makes it easier. And practicing across multiple environments and situations makes the new skill stronger!

If your family member is in feeding therapy, ask the practitioner how they are programming for generalization.

Don’t just train and hope… program actively for generalization.