Nate started eating solid foods around the time when other tots do, about six months of age.  He has always been a champion eater.  In the jar food phase, he would down rice cereal and sweet potatoes like no one’s business.  In the finger food phase, where we continue to reside, Nate consistently eats more than his classmates do.  Many times, his school “report cards” comment on how well he ate that day and the meal notes almost always say that he gobbled down everything he was offered.

While Nate has no problem eating, he does have very specific buckets of food that he will eat.  He isn’t a picky eater but, rather, he’s a particular one.  The sense of touch plays a big role in what Nate eats.  For example, when he eats a banana, one of his favorite foods, Nate first takes his pointer finger and smooshes it down the center of the fruit.  Sometimes it will split into bits, sometimes not.  Once he’s “felt” that it’s a banana, he’s willing to eat it.  Pasta, on the other hand, is one of the hated foods.  Regardless of the pasta’s shape, color, size, and/or sauce (red, white, butter, or plain), Nate will first poke the pasta with his pointer finger and, sometimes, will pick it up.  In either case, the reaction is always the same.  He gets the “Eww, gross!” look on his face and vigorously does the “all done” sign (think of an umpire making a “safe” call in baseball) over and over again until all of the pasta has been obliterated from his tray.  This means the pasta (and sauce, if we weren’t thinking on that particular day) has now been transferred to the floor, walls, drawers, dishwasher, and even the ceiling.

Nate’s peculiarity with food selection and, more specifically, food texture made much more sense once his autism diagnosis was made.  See, it seems that autistic children have food issues.  Food needs to look a particular way, individual to each child, and feel a particular way, also individual to each child.  Only after getting over these hurdles do you begin to deal with taste.  So getting new foods into Nate’s diet isn’t as easy as asking him to try something.  To get new foods in his diet, we need to first try to figure out what our non-verbal child does and doesn’t like—starting with color and texture first.  Try that one on for size….

As part of therapy, we were asked to look at Nate’s eating palate—not just what he eats but what’s in common with his likes and dislikes: shape, size, texture, and color.  We made a list of everything Nate likes to eat and won’t eat.  I decided to divide his “likes to eat” list into “sometimes foods,” meaning he’ll sometimes eat them when they’re on his tray, and the “always foods,” meaning there’s hardly a doubt that he’ll eat it.

Here’s the list of what Nate will always eat, sometimes eat, and never eat:

Nate’s Always Foods: Fruits (organic): strawberries, blueberries, apples, grapes (red and green), mangos, cantaloupe, honeydew melon, watermelon, tomatoes, bananas, and raisins.  Food: non-chunky yogurt (open to any flavor, including those with pureed vegetables), “Chinese chicken” (breaded chicken in a sauce including sesame or General Tso’s and Purdue’s frozen bourbon chicken), cereal bars (strawberry, apple, or blueberry), waffles, pancakes (plain, with fruit, or pumpkin), bread, Cheerios (plain or multi-grain), mild cheeses (fresh mozzarella, cheddar—yellow or white), soda crackers, goldfish/cheezit crackers, graham crackers (cinnamon or plain), and pretzels (hard, thin ones).  Drinks: Water.

Rare Treats that Nate Loves: oatmeal raisin cookies (Earth’s Best – they are square and resemble a graham cracker), blueberry muffin, French fries, chips (veggie sticks or tortilla), jello (red or green are the only two kinds he’s had), cake with frosting, brownies, ice cream/whipped cream.

Nate’s Sometimes Foods: Fruits (organic): raspberries (sometimes doesn’t like the texture after he smooshes it and freaks out), starfruit, avocado. Food: pretzels (soft, big ones), mini peanut butter cracker sandwiches, hamburger patty, pizza, non “Chinese chicken” chicken, toast with butter, grilled cheese, quesadilla.  Drinks: soy milk, Keefir/yogurt drinks.

Nate’s Forget-About-It Foods/Drinks: Spaghetti sauce, pasta (any kind, any shape, with or without sauce), peanut butter sandwich, hummus / hummus sandwich, toast with jam, broccoli, green beans, carrots, sweet potatoes, cow’s milk, almond milk.

What do you see in common?  We saw that first Nate only likes food that’s white, red/orange, blue (blueberries), or brown.  Second, Nate likes carbs.  Third, Nate likes sweet foods (a boy after his mother’s heart). Finally, many of his forget-about-it foods are slimy in texture (read: ew, gross!).

Now, there’s a whole school of thought that autism isn’t actually a developmental brain disorder but, rather, is an allergy to gluten (wheat) and casein (dairy).  Look at Nate’s food list.  Excluding the fruit, his whole diet is gluten and casein. When we first started learning about autism, Chad and I started reading autism diet books.  And then we compared it to what Nate eats.  And we worried.  We worried less about what gluten and casein were doing to Nate but, rather, if he had to go on the diet, how he would react to yet another change in his life.  If we took gluten away from his diet, he’d be left with fruit, cheese, water, and jello (and that’s a very rare treat that Nate likes to play with more than anything else).  If we took dairy out of his diet, it would remove his protein source, leaving him with fruit, crackers, and bread products.  We couldn’t imagine doing either.

We went to our sage pediatrician and said, “And what about this theory about gluten/casein and autism?”  He said he doesn’t think that’s the key to this disorder.  We were a little more at ease.  Then we asked Nate’s therapists (six of them) about the link, too.  All of them politely said that, if we wanted to try it, they would support us because it can’t hurt to try.  However, most have only seen improvement in children who have had bowel and indigestion issues their entire life.  And that’s never been the case with Nate.

For the time being, we are relieved that the professionals in our life aren’t suggesting that we change Nate’s diet.  In fact, all of the therapists who have watched Nate enjoy a meal are blown away by how well he eats.  At a typical siting, he’ll finish a grilled cheese (the same size sandwich that I would eat), a ½ cup of diced tomatoes, goldfish or crackers, and a toddler sized cup of yogurt.  My boy likes to eat.  A lot.

All of Nate’s eating life, Chad and I have had a running joke that Nate’s favorite food is red.  We have noticed that, with the exclusion of spaghetti sauce, Nate primarily gravitates toward the red food on his plate.  Once we started therapy, we now know that this isn’t a joke—it’s key to how Nate thinks about food.  Our occupational therapist, who deals with the food stuff, starts in March and we’re excited to find ways to figure out how Nate thinks about food and expand his palate beyond the list above.  I’m sure it will be dramatic, funny, and there will be video at 11….