#MyKINDofChristmas - Day 5 Can you believe we are almost a week into our festive campaign #myKINDofChristmas? Which means we are getting ever closer to the big day – and all that entails. Today the topic is food and we have partnered with Ciara of My Fussy Eater to bring you a tried and tested recipe – and extra information around sensory differences concerning food. Ciara speaks from experience of being an amazing cook and author – but also a mum of two fussy eaters, one of whom is autistic. Click here for her tried and tested slow cooker beef casserole – perfect for a warming festive food without the fuss. Q: Ciara can you tell us what you have noticed in terms of sensory reaction to food, especially for Finn? A: I have to come to understand lately the extent to which sensory reactions play a very big part in the foods that Finn will and will not eat. Picky eaters in general, whether they are autistic or not, will have intense sensory reactions to food, based on texture, taste and smell. For many autistic children these sensory reactions are heightened which can lead to complete refusal of certain types of food. Texture Texture doesn’t seem to be a massive issue for Finn. He likes smooth textures such as yogurt but will also eat some foods with a lot of texture like granola. However a lot of children – and adults - will have quite negative reactions to different textures and identifying these can be half the battle in tackling their food issues. Taste Taste wise Finn likes quite bland food without any strong flavour. For example he loves bread and breadsticks, pancakes, rice, Weetabix and fish fingers. Many autistic children will have the opposite preference and will actively seek out strong, spicy or sour flavours. Temperature Another sensory reaction Finn will have to food is temperature. He doesn’t like food to be hot, or even quite warm. He will push away even his favourite meals if they are too warm so we generally leave his food to cool before offering it to him. Feel The feel of food can also cause issues with feeding. I tend to think of this different than texture, as it’s simply in relation to how they react to the feel of food in their hands, as opposed to the texture when they eat it. Finn doesn’t like to get his hands messy and so when he eats finger foods they nearly always have to be dry. By understanding Finn’s basic sensory reactions to food, we have been able to come up with a list of foods that we know he likes and will eat, and also use that knowledge to try to widen his choices. Q: We hear a lot that the change of routine at this time of year can be tricky, is that something you have observed? Most children, not just those who are autistic, thrive on routine and predictability. But for neurodivergent children having a routine around food can be really important in helping them feel at ease at meal times when so many other things in their lives are unpredictable and chaotic. Predictable but not reliant For some children this means eating the same thing for breakfast, lunch or dinner every day. We obviously don’t want to encourage this but we can use this as a starting point to expand the range of foods that they eat. Q: What about the association some kids have with branding and packaging. Any advice? A: I think we do need to be careful when it comes to specific brands of foods. I have heard stories of autistic children becoming distraught when the packaging of their favourite foods have changed. This is obviously something completely out of our control as parents and so I try to limit foods where Finn has a strong association with the packaging or branding. Q: Even things like plates change at Christmas – can that be an issue? Predictability may also come in the crockery and cutlery that your child uses. Finn loves colourful or character plates. He especially enjoys divided plates. They are fun and inviting but also separate out his food which I think he finds easier to cope with and makes it simple for me to add some new foods without causing too much stress. Small Changes I always advocate very small changes when dealing with picky eaters and this is even more important for autistic children. Baby steps are needed when making changes to any area of their lives. If for example your child eats cornflakes for breakfast every day, try adding just a very small portion of fruit in a separate bowl. Leave the bowl beside them but don’t force them to eat it. They may refuse that fruit every day for a week or two but eventually it will become part of their routine and they may pick up a piece and try it. Q: Living in a world not built with them in mind can cause anxiety and additional stress for people who are autistic or neurodivergent. What’s your advice? A: Autistic children will often feel high levels of stress and anxiety in many aspects of their lives but we can try as much as possible to remove this from food and feeding. Freedom One way we do this at home is to allow Finn to have a lot of freedom when it comes to mealtimes. We don’t force him to sit at the table. We give him a choice of sitting at the table, on a stool at the island or on the couch in the living room. This goes against advice you will often hear about sitting down as a family to eat, but if we forced Finn to sit somewhere where he was not comfortable, he would not eat. We also allow Finn to watch tv or play on his tablet during mealtimes. Again this is contrary to a lot of advice other people will give but it means that he is relaxed and happy and will therefore eat more. Choice As Finn’s speech and general communication is improving I am also starting to offer him more choice when it comes to his food. This gives him an element of control over what he is eating which in turn reduces his stress at mealtimes. Visuals can work really well for children with limited speech. Autism and its related food issues is such a wide area and I feel like I have barely scratched the surface on this topic. I am obviously not a professional and my advice is based solely my own experience with Finn. If you are at all worried about your child’s eating and nutritional intake then you should of course seek help from your GP, paediatrician or autism professional. The North East Autism Society family development team can help in this area. I also appreciate that it is very much based on your own experience and your own child. So if you have any advice or tips you would like to share, please do let us know.