Parents of fussy eaters dream of their children eating mangoes, lasagne, yoghurt, cucumbers and even the occasional caramel donut when the chocolate ones have sold out. Our hearts break every time we prepare a food we think they will try.
Any pressure results in tears and tantrums until we give up. It’s just not worth it to go through all the drama just to try and get them to eat something different for once. So we stock up on all the foods we know they are willing to eat.
I first heard of the term “narrow eating” shortly after my son was diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder. Narrow eating is the medical term for those children whose fussy eating habits go beyond the usual assertions of control over their environment, their way of expressing their independence. It’s when a child can’t even bring themselves to try a new food, particularly those with an unfamiliar appearance or texture. It’s not just children with ASD who experience narrow eating, although they are more likely to have sensitivity issues like it.
Child psychologist Ian Wallace describes narrow eating as oral sensitivity or oral defensiveness and suggests it often extends to other sensitivities such as irritation from things like clothing, particular noises or smells.
Children with narrow eating disorders are often incorrectly labelled fussy eaters, leading parents to enforce food rules that leaves children in very real distress at the prospect of having to eat certain types of food.
The cause of narrow eating is thought to be heightened perception through taste buds, or as Wallace explains, "their taste buds send too strong a perceptive message to the sensory processing are of the brain, such that their preceptive system hyper-perceives either the taste or texture of food. Thus, it would be like us eating yoghurt with a grain of sand in it, or us eating excessively over-spiced food and over-sweet food. To a child with ASD, their perception is very real and genuine. In contrast, they may like a really firm bite, e.g. the consistent firm texture of a raw carrot or the feel of white bread."