OR Expanding the Gross-Threshold
1) I read a story to day published by NPR that babies that feed themselves have better eating habits and no obesity. The picture with it showed the proverbial kid with food smeared all over his face. This article said that kids that feed themselves make healthier food choices (choosing carbs instead of sweets).
2) I read a post today on an autism discussion page about letting kids learn to do it them selves - being sure not to foster/ enable excuses for not performing tasks. The goal of the post was to encourage parents to do everything WITH their child so the child still feels enabled enough to complete the task when they are physically strong enough to do so. The specific example was spreading peanut butter, which takes a very particular technique, mastery of applying pressure and smooth movements. It IS difficult when first attempted, but can be conquered with technique.
3) My kids do both of these things. When they were super-littles, I put food right in front of them, and then I ate... especially while nursing I found that I was RAVENOUS, and if I didn't eat, then I was very irritable- which is not good for me or the kid. It's kind of one of those "put your oxygen mask on you first" kind of situations. Yes, yes.. I checked to be sure there was no choking when we first started, but before long I was just leaving mixing bowls of cheerios out so that my grazer could eat whenever he needed to with out my whole world having to stop. How else was I gonna get all that laundry done?! Besides, picking up cheerios is supposed to help with pencil grip (not that it has panned out that way for my Aspie, but whatever).
As to being en-abled: I am a student of history. I am very well aware that in a farming economy, children WORK. A 2 yo can still collect eggs from the hen house, or carry bedding, or something. The reason children worked in factories when the world economy became industrialized is because they would have been contributing family members on the farm, so why not now too? Families required every member to contribute. The Lowell Mills (first major fabric manufacturers in US) specifically sought un-married young women as laborers... the family members who were a drain on their family's economy: a mouth to feed without being an essential laborer. Add to that my Montessori background - where the whole idea is that people learn with their hands, by doing. In a Montessori school all children work, all the time - every activity is called work, because it facilitates learning. The word play seldom exists in Montessori schools.
So my kids WORK. Everyday I find myself saying "you live here, you work here" or "work before play" or "God gave you arms & legs, USE THEM". As we have moved into early elementary years, I often find myself saying, "I am NOT your servant. I will not do your work for you." It is one thing to openly acknowledge a challenge, a lack of ability, it is another to use it as an excuse, to let it be the reason an attempt isn't even made. Don't get me wrong. One lesson I learned in a Montessori classroom was that when the jobs are everyone's responsibility, if you wait long enough, someone else will do it. I have subconsciously practiced that with my husband for years. [If the gross dishes bother him so much, then his sorry butt can do them. I consider it working to my strength...] Chores are not fun, but they have to be done.
But there is a difference between acknowledging to my kids that I don't want to do it either and doing it FOR them.
So my kids feed themselves. Basically they do so most of the day. I only make them sit down with the family for one meal a day (evening). Otherwise, they pretty much scavenge. There are rules for scavenging, of course. They aren't allowed to use the microwave or stove or a sharp chef knife (they are only 5 & 7), they have to eat at the table (can't wander around with it - unless it is one of those things classified as an "outside food", like popsicles or pop corn), and they have to clean it up (that we are still working on, but I have been hitting heavy on it the last week or so), uneaten food back in fridge, dishes in the sink, trash in the can, bodies washed up - sometimes that is just hands, but sometimes a shower is entailed.
So let me explain about the showering. It is directly related to the SPD and the self-skills. One of the first skills my kids learned was to defend themselves from the dog licking. [EVERYONE should have a dog when they have a baby! - it heavily off-sets the increasing of the gross-threshold!] I remember the pediatrician asking me how many times I bathed my baby. "Um, every meal, duh. His whole body is covered in goo!" Looking back now, I bet that should have been my first sign that we had sensory oddness, but it was my first kid, I thought it was just part of the process. So whenever he ate, he rubbed it all over himself, in hair, across face, on clothes. It was very gross. I did not want to touch that! So I usually laid him on the floor for level one cleaning from the dog (gets off the big chunks), and then we went directly to the bath for level two cleaning (stickiness & caked on smudges). The high chair was hosed daily.
As he got bigger, I resorted to finger foods, constantly. [This became a sticking point with my parents, who insist that a meal is not a meal without gravy.] You cannot give gravy or anything with sauce to an SPD kid and then be surprised that it gets all over his body & the furniture within his "splash zone." Everything else necessitated double overtime cleaning - as in kid goes in bath while I am vacuuming and scrubbing furniture. I am left with no hot water for dishes or my bath. This cycle is very discouraging when it happens 3-4 times a day, and eventually the lack of hot water catches up with you. Dishes start to pile, laundry starts to pile, and getting off the big chunks is sufficient (usually - especially if he's just gonna go outside and smear his body with mud anyway. Yeah, we had about 1.5 years of that...SPD at work again.) But even finger foods leave you with crumbs and grease spots, and you still gotta give them drinks...
There is just no getting around the fact that eating remains a contact sport for my kid. I remember as a kid my dad telling me that you knew it was good if you wore it too (usually referring to BBQ), so I am thinking I should just appreciate his zest for deliciousness? Lord knows that when I have a religious experience with food I just want to smear it on my chest... so maybe it's ok. Either way, it's unavoidable. The kid is going to have a multi-sensory experience every time he eats.
And here I think is the hang-up. There comes a point where you have to justify your reality, where you have to accept the inevitable, where the gross-threshold just expands, exponentially. I think every parent comes to grips with icky-ness, but the autistic/ SPD kid just keeps upping the icky-ness, and the adults around them learn to cope.
And the rest of the world judges. In our neighborhood, a social services investigation was initiated because the teachers reported that the sped kid came to school "dirty" every day. Really? And then the fear creeps in... my kid just ate that nugget off the ground at the park - will the other parents report me? My kid just licked the fence - who is watching?
The devil is in the details. If the dirt is harboring bacteria and contributing to a wound, hell yes, action is necessary. But what if the kid's like Pig-Pen, and just attracts dirt (and yes, I have had several students like that, I swear dirt used radar on that kid). If the nugget had been there a longtime, was growing crud and would make the kid puke, hell yes, action is necessary. What about the 10 second rule?, or the SPD kid who is looking to add crunchiness to the nugget (yes, my son has done this.)? As to licking the fence - he did it at a zoo, "because my tongue itched" he told me. I wasn't actually present, he was with extended family on that occasion.
As the parent you eventually grow a certain level on numbness. Not because every kid doesn't have gross stories, but because that "phase" does not leave. We are talking about a group who commonly has OCD (Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder), and the other extreme is the fastidious kid who won't eat or play outside - the germaphobes. Establishing a "happy middle" is VERY unlikely, or at least takes a VERY, VERY long time. Applying ideas from one situation to another does not occur. So when he says "I licked a fence at the zoo", and I say, "Well, you shouldn't do that again" - that just means don't do that at a zoo. Fences in other places are still fine [in his head]. Or you can try the blanket statement: "Don't lick any fence ever again." - which is probably OK for fence-licking, but it's not really a good tactic. Like the time my son ate a random mushroom he found growing at the park, and we went to the ER [per poison control] and the doc wrote in the discharge: "Do NOT eat at the park again" [No more picnics? Hell, no! Especially since I try to make them eat outside as much as possible during the summer - less clean up]. So we told him, "Don't eat mushrooms unless Mommy buys them from the store" - which means unless he sees ME buy them, he picks them out and refuses to eat them [like at grandparents' or restaurants]. So, you see there comes a point where nuance just loses its priority.
The kid did not eat anything poisonous today, so we are all fine.
The more you say that, the more you believe that. But your neighbors, the school staff, the strangers at the store are not telling themselves that everyday. They don't believe that. And they see the nonchalance, the increased gross-threshold, the apparent lowering of standards for socially acceptable behavior, and are concerned. Concern turns to judgment.
Judgment can turn to action. And that begets fear. So the parent of the otherly, the odd, the autistic, the SPD child is quick to make sure labels are clearly marked so that the judgment (and action) are in a context that does not criminalize the parent. Because they will. Social services does come and put children in homes, schools do set kids up to be ostracized & ridiculed, strangers do tell you off in public places, extended family does tell you it's your fault, and parents are judged as criminal in the minds of the people around them. The fear that disciplining a child will lead to accusations of abuse is widespread, not just in the special needs community.
And what does that do for a kid? I can tell you that for my 7 YEAR OLD, he already knows he is disabled. When he approaches a task that is difficult for him (fine motor), he tells me "people like me don't do things like that." The words "I can't" are said WAAAAAY too often by him. The professionals call it an inability to transition - he protests vehemently every time he is given directions, that he thinks are too hard for him. The non-professionals call it disrespect and obstinacy. There are days I despair of ever seeing him live on his own, because he won't work, because he will stand in the corner and wait for the world to come to him because he believes he can't go find it.
And there are days that we practice Adventure Therapy, and we go new places, and we arm him with coping skills, and we show him strategies for learning and seeing, and applying. And he grows every time. And he stands out as odd every time, so the fear of judgment is the elephant in the room, every time. And he incrementally learns that other people's gross-thresholds are NOT in the same place as our family's, and I warn every waitress that eating is a contact sport, and we need extra napkins.
And the cycle perpetuates. He feeds himself, because I am trying to enable him, and it's a contact sport, with carnage everywhere, and his different-ness becomes painfully obvious, and we resort to sharing the label to avoid the judgment, and the child is reinforced that he's not doing it right, that he's not really ok. In fact, he's kind of gross.
BUT... he really does have good eating habits. He chooses vegetables and meat over bread of sweets just about every time, and he only eats when he is hungry.