kids

"I'm paying $1800 for my son to do 'food therapy'. And he's failing."

Food therapy for kids is a thing now. If you have a fussy eater, if your child struggles to chew certain foods or favours some over the others, food therapy is the ticket. It’s a relatively new concept, sort of like an eating intervention with fun and games and lots of learning.

My son Giovanni, 8, is on the autism spectrum and is incredibly picky about what he eats and how he eats it. He is slightly overweight and I am concerned that his health is going to suffer if he doesn’t start eating fruits, vegetables and different kinds of proteins aside from chicken schnitzel and sausages.

He started Occupational Therapy (OT) earlier this year and there was an immediate improvement in his school work and writing. It was the best money I’ve ever spent, worth every single cent.

I blame the success of OT on my high expectations for the food therapy program which I call Food OT. I imagined Giovanni being coaxed into trying apples and carrots and different types of bread. I pictured us shopping together and cooking together and him at least trying different foods before he decided he didn’t want to eat them.

That’s not what has happened.

Instead my son seems to be flunking food therapy. He’s the worst kid in the class. Firstly he looks very different to the other kids in his food therapy group. He’s a big boy but all the other children are small and thin. He refuses to try any food he hasn’t eaten before where as all the other children at least take a bite before the decide they don’t actually like it. He gets up during the session and runs in circles around the table where as all the other kids sit nicely in their seats, concentrating on the session and the foods being placed before them.

The cost of the food therapy program which runs for 12 weeks is $1800 however I'll only end up paying $1360 thanks to a bit of help from private health insurance.

I would be happy to spend the money if the program actually worked. I'd pay double for Giovanni to start eating fruits, vegetables and different meals.

The first week was great actually but that's the last progress he has made. He tried a new food (although he now refuses to eat it at home) and that is Rice Bubbles. Also in week one he licked an apple which was excellent progress. I imagined him licking it again in week two and by week three maybe he'd take a small bite and realise how sweet it tasted.

I fantasised about being able to pack him apples instead of just bananas in his school snacks. My endless quest for Giovanni-worthy bananas (they must be small but not Lady Fingers, perfectly ripe but not too ripe) is doing my head in.

When he was a toddler he used to eat everything. I remember sharing a plate of grilled sardines with him, of how he'd eat a peeled apple every night before bed. As he got older and his sensory issues and personality quirks kicked in, foods started dropping off the list.

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Giovanni isn't just fussy about what he eats but how he eats it. This is his ritual before eating even one bite of chicken nuggets:  (Article continues after this video).

It's gotten to a point where I can count the foods he'll eat using just my fingers, and none of my toes. It's a huge concern. I'm devastated that the food therapy hasn't worked for him.

At least we tried. It's just that I could have spent that money on Speech Therapy where he would have learned how to communicate effectively with friends and how to be more social. I've now realised that after OT, Speech Therapy is more important than anything else.

It's more important than how he eats, participating in sports, his night-time incontinence, everything else.

Instead of fretting about his food choices at a recent family lunch where delicious foods such as marinaded chicken thighs, sausages, salads, dips, lasagna and chocolate cake were on offer I simply served him his preferred toasted cheese sandwiches instead of lunch and two fun-sized Milky Ways instead of the cake.

I'm hoping his food issues start to sort themselves out as he gets older. Once he's more mature, happier and more at ease in the world, maybe he'll start to overcome some of his sensory issues when it comes to food. Maybe he'll be able to bring himself to just take a bite.

Still, it's difficult. Philip, 12, is allergic to egg and nuts. Then Giovanni is an incredibly fussy eater. It's almost impossible to think of meals I can make for dinner that they are all happy to eat. It's a constant struggle.

He's just as picky about his junk food as he is about other foods. Chocolate ice-cream only, Twisties not Cheezels. Image: Provided
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I should probably explain that for years I tried every single thing I could think of to encourage Giovanni to eat different foods. I used to tell him that if he didn't eat the meal I presented to him he wasn't allowed to eat anything else. The effect of that was devastating. Unlike children who are not on the spectrum Giovanni can't apply logic as easily as others. He can't control his emotions or explain how he feels like others. When he's feeling stressed and anxious he shuts down like a little robot with an off switch and I just couldn't bear to see him like that anymore.

The goal with a child with autism is to open them up, not shut them down.

Once I offered him $50 to try a strawberry. He really wanted that $50. I know I know, it's not my proudest parenting moment. I just wanted to figure out if his refusal to try strawberries (which he had happily eaten as a toddler) was due to stubbornness or real sensory issues. He just couldn't bring himself to do it and he was so stressed out from trying that he began to rock back and forth in an attempt to calm himself down.

That's when I knew his food issues were real. That's when I knew it probably wasn't my fault and that I'd need professional help coming up with a solution.

The food therapy staff keep assuring me that Giovanni has achieved progress in food therapy and they are trying to make me understand that his willingness to hold new foods and learn about them will eventually lead to a breakthrough. I hope so.

I'm still grateful for the experience because I've met some amazing mums and being about to share our struggles is so soothing. We watch our children through a one-sided window as they do their sessions and tense up as they approach new foods, sometimes breaking into applause when our children try something new.

We only have six weeks left and I am desperate for him to try something, anything, just a little, just a nibble.

Crossing fingers, crossing toes.

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