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Food For Thought - Tips On Portion Control And Healthy Eating For People With Autism
Countless people struggle with weight issues and that seemingly ever-present temptation to eat too much or indulge in foods that aren't good for us. For many of these individuals, what stops them from eating anything and everything in sight is an appreciation and understanding that there are consequences to their actions... "If I eat that burger and fries before bed, I'll have horrible heartburn and indigestion that will keep me up all night, making me tired and miserable tomorrow." "If I continue packing on those pounds from too many visits to the donut shop, I'll end up overweight and not able to wear that new dress I just bought." "I better start eating more fruit and veggies and less cheese or my cholesterol levels are going to go through the roof!"
Even when we have this awareness, we all know all too well that resisting the temptation of food is not easy. When an individual has Autism, this appreciation of consequences may very well not even exist, leaving individuals on the spectrum that much more vulnerable to unhealthy diets, overeating and obesity. However, with a little help from their caregivers, friends and family members, a person with Autism can maintain a healthy weight and benefit from a well-balanced diet.
A cognitive approach – Social Stories
For those individuals on the Autism Spectrum who are able to comprehend cause-and-effect sequences and more abstract ideas, you may be able to utilize social stories to teach the risks associated with overeating. Create a book or video, for example, about Johnny and what happened to him when he kept eating too many cookies... he felt sick to his stomach, his pants wouldn't fasten and he was too full to eat the good foods that would help make him strong and healthy.
Here is a video one Mom created to help her son. While it delves into many abstract issues like not being wasteful with food, which could be potentially confusing to some learners, she states in her introduction that it was helpful in enabling her child to lose 7 pounds.
If you think that a social story could help your child learn about how to eat appropriately, and wish to custom-make a video to demonstrate appropriate eating, here are a couple of iPad apps you may wish to explore:
While social stories and explanations may be ideal for certain individuals on the Autism Spectrum who have good receptive language abilities and cognitive skills, I suspect that for others who are more challenged in these domains, removing the "why" from the equation is often the best approach.
You'd be amazed at how many sticky buns my son can eat in under a minute! That's why we've had to impose some limits on how many of these yummy treats he is allowed to consume in a day.
One of the tools we've had success with is this handy and very simple checklist I created in MS Word that you can download and customize with your child's favorite indulgences:
- download the file here
- delete the images of the sticky buns
- drag and drop your own pictures in their place that you've either taken yourself or have found in a Google Image Search
- resize the photos if necessary by dragging them from their corners
- print, laminate, and repeat with any other foods that may need to be limited
- three-hole punch each page and store sheets together in a binder that is easily accessible in the kitchen
- each time one of these foods is eaten, make a big checkmark with a dry-erase marker in the box below the food pictured
- at the end of each week, erase the checkmarks and start again!
There are lots of checklist apps out there that can be used for this purpose. One I found to be especially helpful was PicList, which has the nice feature of being able to integrate photos and images into your lists which is especially helpful for non-readers. Here is a screen capture of what Monday looks likes, for example. (Note that I had to use the number 1 before Monday, 2 before Tuesday, etc. in order to get the days of the week to appear in chronological rather than alphabetical order.)
Whether we are offering highly preferred foods like sticky buns, or not-so preferred foods like strawberries or grapes, we always provide Michael with choice so he is able to have some input with respect to what he eats. You can offer choices in more of a low-tech way, with a homemade choiceboard such as this one we made years ago out of foam core, white glue and the Velcro®-compatible "Front Runner" fabric.
Or, you can go the high-tech route with one of the many apps out there designed to offer choice such as My Choice Board, an absolutely amazing piece of software for the iPhone/iPad that shows items that are both available to choose, and those that are not, as depicted in this screen capture
This little battery-operated alarm adheres easily to a fridge, breadbox or kitchen cabinet and can be purchased in many hardware stores. While it doesn't prevent my son from making attempts to get his favorite foods, it does alert us that he's probably hungry and signals us to join him in the kitchen where we can help him seek out healthier, lower-calorie alternatives if he's already reached his daily quotas for his more preferred, but higher calorie treats.