SENSORY PROCESSING DIFFICULTIES AND FOOD CHALLENGES ARE NOT UNCOMMON.
Often referred to as having a ‘restricted diet’, many worry about the impact on health and nutrition. Some people’s diet is so restricted it can be limited to as little as 5 foods or less. These people are often referred to as ‘fussy’ or ‘picky eaters’.
Many people assume that sensory processing difficulties and food challenges are driven by taste, and whilst that CAN be a major factor, it can be all of the senses that have an impact on what someone will tolerate food-wise. Eating is a multi-sensory experience and if you are wanting to understand a person’s restricted diet you need to consider all the senses
TASTE – so the most obvious one is taste, everyone has flavours they enjoy or avoid, but often those with SPD can interpret tastes differently and may be over or under sensitive to flavours. So you may get someone who devours hot spicy foods while others prefer bland, tasteless items.
SIGHT – the colour of the food, the environment that a person eats in, can all be influencing factors on a persons ability to tolerate or try a food. A change in the packaging, or how it looks on the plate could also be factors.
SMELL – this one is massive when it comes to food. Even if someone who is considered a picky eater is served a meal they usually enjoy but are sitting in a kitchen that has had another meal cooked and they can smell it, this could impact their ability to eat. Smell can interrupt eating.
TOUCH – so this has two areas. First is certain foods touching other foods may not be tolerable. But secondly, it can also refer to the feeling inside the mouth. Sensations many just take for granted such as a cherry tomato popping inside a mouth may be totally off-putting to someone with SPD.
SOUND – you may not think this is particularly linked to sensory processing difficulties and food challenges, but eating can be noisy – someone may enjoy the noises eating makes, but others may find it intolerable. It may not even be the noises they make while eating but that of the others eating at the table. Misophonia is a subset of this and can make mealtimes intolerable for the sufferer.
VESTIBULAR – if someone is a vestibular seeker but are expected to sit still at the dinner table to concentrate on eating, they will struggle.
PROPRIOCEPTION – the jaw is packed with proprioceptors making chewing, and crunching great for sensory input, but those with poor proprioception may find themselves not enjoying mealtimes as it feels like a chore, as they struggle with coordinating the use of cutlery or even chewing.
INTEROCETION – poor interoception could mean a person struggles to notice when they are hungry or thirsty, this makes eating less of a priority, or if it’s the flip side, they may overindulge.
So as you can see sensory processing difficulties and food challenges can be quite complex and impacted by a variety of factors. It can take a bit of detective work to figure out what sense is having the biggest impact, but once you do, these strategies may help:
- Don’t sweat the small stuff, if a bland diet is what the person needs, let them. Try and introduce any new foods slowly or offer seasoning and sauces on the side. It can be stressful worrying about nutrition, and of course, you want the best for yourself or the individual, but adding pressure won’t help. Slow and steady wins the race, better the person is eating something rather than nothing.
- Pay attention to patterns – is it a certain texture that is enjoyed and another that is avoided? Perhaps smooth foods do the trick or doses the person enjoy crunch and texture? Observe the pattern and offer more of those textures.
- Introduce new foods or textures very slowly. You can make a game of it and perhaps do it outside of meal times to remove the pressure, or if during meal times very occasionally, on the side in small amounts. Allow the person time to study it, touch it, smell it..
- Get the eating environment right for the individual – soft music, dim lights or the opposite, whatever helps the person calm and focus on eating. The goal is to reduce the sensory stresses presented by a new food.
- For those that need movement, a wobble cushion to sit on while eating may help. Or a footstool. Perhaps even standing up.
- Outside of meal times encourage activities that will help desensitise the mouth and jaw. Things like blowing bubbles, sucking a thick milkshake through a straw, mouthing suitable objects in a variety of textures such as a Chewigem.
- Allowing noise-reducing earplugs or headphones to block out the sounds of others chewing. Yes I know mealtimes are supposed to be social, but the goal is to improve a person’s diet and nutrition. You can work on the rest later.
- Visual distractions may benefit some, so allowing them to watch TV while eating to distract from the activity of eating.
- Be mindful of scent. Mask smells with the use of aromatherapy oils or spray scents.
- A lack of awareness for what’s going in the mouth may mean the person needs monitoring for ingesting inedible items.
- Often strong flavours are enjoyed, provide extra seasoning and sauces.
- Use planners and timers to help signal when and how often food should be consumed.
- Feed the need for oral input with oral stimulating activities such as providing crunching carrot sticks, celery or oral stim aids such as Chewigem.
- Offer a variety of tastes from sweet to salty, sour to bitter.
In closing, can be upsetting when you, or someone you care for has sensory processing difficulties and food challenges. A bag full of patience and understanding are required. Spending time keeping a diary and really getting to the bottom of what is causing the food challenges, then trying different strategies to make small improvements is the way forward.
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