Catastrophe In A Cafeteria: Assaulted by the Senses


It's snowing!  I love the white fluttering down, tickling my eyes. I wanted to see every bit of snow so I pulled up a stool and perched myself on it to watch out the window. Snow means it's Winter and snow means it's Christmas. Because that is what happens in Winter and at Christmas, it snows.  

At Christmastime, my mom bakes lots of things. There are all sorts of new smells. Some I like and some I don't. Last year I asked my mom to make bread every day. I love to make bread, but I don't want to eat it. I just want  to mix the dough, pour the the ingredients, dump the flour so it makes a cloud rise up at me. My mom always tell me to be gentle when I pour the flour, but if I do that, then I won't get to see the cloud. So I dump it anyway. 

I like to watch the bread rise up. It takes a long time and sometimes I have to make myself stop watching it so it can grow. My mom always shows me how big it got before she puts it in the oven. Then the smell of bread fills the whole house. 

I like that smell.  It seems to cover up some of the others smells that I don't like, like stuffing and turkey. 

The smells that bother me the most are the ones in a cafeteria or restaurant. Last summer we went to Saint Joe's College for the Autism Family Retreat. I really wanted to go, and I wanted to stay in a dorm-hotel room.  I wanted to go swimming, and I wanted to be on that beautiful, open campus. I had forgotten all about the cafeteria. 

We got there at dinner time.  My mom brought my lunchbox because I am allergic to lots of foods and I don't like most other foods. We found a table on the far edge of the cafeteria, past the food court, across the whole dinning area and by the place people go to put their dirty dishes away.  From there I could see out the glass doors to the beautiful campus. I could also hear all the people clinking their forks. The clink shot straight through my ear and exploded in my body like when thunder is directly overhead! I could hear people I didn't know making unusual sounds that I wasn't used to. Some of them were loud and would catch me off guard. So I would hum and talk to myself and plug my ears. Then it wouldn't hurt so much, but it wasn't a very comfortable position for long. 

My family went to get their food in the food court and brought it back to the table where I was. They all got different things. At home, everyone has the same food to eat so the smells are all the same. But here, they all had different things. Some were really gross looking, with red poured all over white shoe-lace shaped slimy pasta. I like my food all the same color. And not red!  My little sister got a hot dog. That wasn't too bad because she has that a lot at home and I am used to the smell, even if it looks kinda gross all cut up.

clink-clink-clink  "Eeeeeeee-Ahhhh!"

My big sister and brother got a lot of food. Most of it was fried and I don't like that smell. I never had fried food before and my mom doesn't fry her food at home. Why would someone do that? Anyway, they also got a lot of dessert. They found the sundae bar and put ice-cream in their bowl. That part was ok but then they put other things on top! Hope put some brown goopy stuff that thickly dripped down the ice-cream and melted it a little. And she be a red ball on top--I don't know why but she's always doing weird things like that. And my big brother put something bright red on his ice-cream that dipped all over, too. It had lumps in the thin liquid it that looked really gross.  

Clink-Clink-Clink. "AhhhAHHaaaaeeeek!" 

It was hard to be in the food court with all the shiny silverware shooting light sparks into my eyes. The clink-clink-clink of silverware hitting plates, and the noise of all the people and the many new smells just added up and wore me out. 

But nothing compares to what happened the next morning. We went to breakfast in the cafeteria again and we sat in the same place. As soon as we walked in I didn't feel good. There was a terrible smell that turned out to be eggs. I am allergic to eggs. The smell was all over--there was no place to escape it and I felt like I was going to be sick. Since we were sitting by the dirty dishes, I also could smell those and some of it smelled like rotten fish. Why would they have fish for breakfast? I didn't seen anyone eating fish but I smelled it anyway.  Fish smell mixed with egg stench and all the new smells of breakfast foods we don't have at home very much did me in. I did not want to go back.

So at lunchtime, I said I didn't want to go but my parents said I had to because it is lunch time and everyone is hungry and needs to eat. So they made me come. I couldn't handle it though. I tried to tell them but they wouldn't listen. I didn't want to eat. I couldn't eat with all those awful smells and the clink-clink-clink and the screaming and so I screamed too--louder than all the other noises so I could have control over what I heard.

I screamed out of frustration of being forced into a place i just couldn't handle. My mom pushed her food away and had me sit on her lap and she held me tight. I liked that, it helped to make me feel secure. But I could still smell and I could still hear and I knew I was all-consumed with things that hurt me. I kicked the table, trying to push it farther away from me. All the dishes jiggled but it didn't fall over so I kept trying. My mom scooted us farther back from the table so I couldn't kick it any more.

Finally, we left. I was exhausted and my mom was too after holding me so long. We took the long hike back to the dorm-hotel and the fresh air helped me so much. The rotten fish and eggs disappeard, replaced by fresh grass and flowers, and bright blue skies with pillowy white clouds floating in it. The unconstrained open campus freed me. Then I saw a big building that I hadn't been in and it had 3 rows of windows so I thought there must be an elevator in there. So I asked my mom to take me on the elevator and she did!  I went up and looked at each floor, memorizing as much as I could. When it was time to go back to my dorm I didn't want to but my mom said I had to because it was time.  

Once I was there I got my construction paper and crayons out and I started making the elevators I had been in at the campus. That helped me get back to my happy place, and be able to move on from the overwhelming trauma at the cafeteria.

I used to like to go to restaurants and watch out the windows. When it was my dad's birthday I asked if we were going to Romeo's Pizza. I really wanted to go because that is where we went the last year for his birthday dinner. They decided to go and I got to drive in the silver car with my mom and baby sister. Joy kept asking where we were going because she didn't remember Romeo's. She is only 3 years old. My mom started describing it to her and then I realized that Romeo's is like a cafeteria!  

Then I didn't want to go any more. I started getting more upset and my heart started racing faster and clink-clink-clink I could just hear and smell, what was coming. Ahhhh-eeeeeK! It was going to be like the cafeteria!  I wanted my mom to turn around right away but she kept going because she had Joy too, and Joy wanted to go out for pizza like she was promised. 

Once we got to Romeos, I wouldn't get out of the car. When they asked me to, I just gave a short scream as an answer.  My parents decided that my mom would drive me home because they remember how hard it was for me at St. Joe's.  

I don't know if I will try a restaurant again or not. Probably not.  

But I do want to bake.  Maybe I will bake bread again for everyone at Christmastime. Maybe I will make cookies too. I don't want to eat it though. I will just stick to the smells for now.

Disclaimer: This post was written by my mom, as she tries to understand what I go through as a 9 year old kid with the sensory differences of autism, to the best of her ability. This in no way reflects reality, and St. Joe's cafeteria offers excellent food!

The Treasure of Curiosity: Daily Bread For the Boy Who Doesn’t Eat.

Home made Bread For The Boy Who Doesn't Eat

The other day I walked into the kitchen to find Stevie sitting at the head of the table, with big eyes.

"Mommy, can-I-have,  red-plate and sugar please?"


"Yeah!" The grin widens, exposing top four permanent teeth that are declaring this boy intends to grow up.

I am curious. Very curious, for this child doesn't eat real food.  He's never had birthday cake, never partaken of Thanksgiving meals, never had french fries. Not even once.

Stevie is way beyond being a "picky eater".  He is what they refer to as a Restrictive Eater with food aversions. He has a Feeding Disorder.

Food aversions are common with autism--up to 70% of autism parents say their kids have severely restrictive diets.  Those of you who saw the movie "Temple Grandin" saw that she only ate jello and pudding, and nothing else.  That gave me comfort concerning Stevie's restrictions, but I later found out this was not a true part of the story and that Temple does in fact eat other foods. (Insert sound of bursting bubble here.)

Recently, Stevie further restricted the foods he will eat.  Now he has given up the two non-crunchy foods he used to enjoy: Stoneyfield French Vanilla Yogurt, and home-made Oatmeal. He started refusing yogurt when Stoneyfield changed their labeling on the container to emphasize "Smooth and Creamy".  Shortly after, he gave up Oatmeal, too.

His diet of crackers, chips and cereal, with beverages to include apple juice and whole milk, is quite alarming.  His source of probiotics is suddenly gone and his sole source of protein comes in liquid form, from a glass of milk.

Fears of what may happen to his health if this continues, loom in my mind. They nudged me to find any store that still carries the old-style container. When that mission failed, I made my own home-made yogurt like I used to. That also failed.  He just won't eat it.

Amidst all the stress around food, Stevies diet, his restrictions and his food allergies (eggs, nuts, peanuts), I found this newly discovered interest in baking bread compelling.

Curiosity rose up like balloons at a birthday party, and without further investigation, I was sure they'd pop.  I had to know why he wanted a red plate and sugar. Why?

What would he do with it? I had to know.

The carbonating curiosity in my heart felt like a party was going on in there, and Curiosity was the gift.

I followed Stevie's lead with the near-giggle creating a lilt in my voice.

It turned out, he wanted to make bread!  And bread he made.  And he made bread the next day and the next and the next.

His curiosity about baking bread nudged him to look up you-tube videos on the subject and he is currently studying it Stevie-style--with videos narrated by people with a British accent.

Curiosity is an emotion that is truly a gift from God. It not only nudges us on to learn, but when we are highly curious about something, we tend to learn better and remember longer. It gives us a built in reward, and captures our attention making it easier to recall more than other times.

After experiencing the excitement of curiosity afresh,  and then doing some research on it, I think this Gift may be the key to increasing Stevie's preferred foods.

Creating an environment that fosters curiosity about food, increasing  the odds he'll want to explore it more in sensory-safe surroundings, may be enough motivation to build up to tasting a new food. And then tasting again and again until he incorporates it into his diet.

According to this article at Johns Hopkins University, "Teachers know that when they can ignite curiosity, a student will seek to understand. The energy of wanting to know can overcome hesitation, doubt, comfort, and more, push to energize into action. Berlyne (1960) claimed that curiosity was the motivator for exploration."

I am so glad I followed Stevies' lead to figure out what he wanted to do.  He continues to ask to make bread each day.  Each day he's amazed at the final product. He loves to watch his family enjoy his creation.  Who knows? Maybe one day he WILL eat the bread!

"It is a miracle that curiosity survives formal education. It is, in fact, nothing short of a miracle that the modern methods of instruction have not entirely strangled the holy curiosity of inquiry."--Albert Einstein

See, even Einstein knew that curiosity was holy :)

What kinds of things do you do to spark curiosity in your child?