Imagine not being able to put a piece of fish in your mouth because you gag on the texture. Not being able to eat pizza because you don’t like the stringy feel of the cheese or only eating plain foods such as chicken nuggets for most of your life. That is what it’s like living with taste sensitivity.
Until the age of 5 years old, I refused to eat anything. Back in the 90’s there was very little knowledge about SPD (Sensory Processing Disorder) and Autism, so when we went to the doctor’s they told my parents to just let me not eat and I would eat when I was hungry. Surprise, surprise, that didn’t happen. Instead, they would bottle feed me while I was asleep, the problem with this is when I would wake up during the feed I would throw the bottle against the wall and start gagging. The problem wasn’t that I didn’t want to eat, it was that I couldn’t tolerate the feeling of different textures in my mouth, and because I was so young, I couldn’t verbalise those feelings into words.
From the ages of 5 until about 12, I had a very limited diet.
My parents tried everything to attempt to increase my diet but I wouldn’t work. Eventually, they gave up because it wasn’t really battle worth fighting. I assume they thought that it was better I was eating than not.
As I reached my teenage years, food was still an issue but because I started to experiment with different types of food. This happened because I was given pocket money that I could spend how I wanted, so there was less pressure. For example, if I wanted to try Spaghetti Bolognese, I could buy a portion and not feel guilty because it was my money to spend how I liked. I started to expose myself to lots of different foods and going out with friends and family to eat in restaurants (something that would’ve been very difficult in the restrictive years).
When I got to university a new challenge to do with taste sensitivity became apparent… cooking!
Despite my co-ordination issues, learning to cook was reasonably easy and I learned I quite enjoyed it. I became quite adventurous with trying vegetables and dishes that I normally wouldn’t try, like stew and stir fry. I think the reason I became so open to trying new things and expanding my diet is that I didn’t have the pressure of having to try new foods and the guilt that came with wasting food that someone else had bought.
Keeping a food log can be very handy. As you probably know, the reactions to food can change from day to day, one day they might like spaghetti and the next day they can’t stand the texture. By keeping a food log you can notice patterns of behaviour for what might trigger your child’s taste SPD.
Smell and taste are interlinked, the smell of food can help your tastebuds decide the type of flavour it might have. For people with SPD, this can be even more interlinked, for example when I smell pizza, I can literally taste the melted cheese in my mouth and it makes me gag and feel like I want to vomit. This is also part of why eating out might be so difficult for children with SPD
Exposure games are a fantastic, fun way to get your child trying new foods. A great way to do this is to get a bunch of fruit (since it’s not too strong tasting) and set them out on plates, then get your child to smell, touch and lick each one to get a feel for the sensory palette of the fruit. Then blindfold them and try to get them to match the fruit to the texture and taste. Eventually, you can get to them placing it on their tongue or swallowing a small bite (although don’t expect this to happen immediately). This allows your child to expand their palette and approved food.
The best way to get your child to try new foods is to let them lead it. You can ask your child if they want to try the food but only ask once. They might ask you if they can try it and then change their mind, that’s ok too. It’s very hard, but try not to get upset when their taste sensitivity is triggered and they lose an approved food.
When you have a child with SPD, even the smallest things for other children, deserve to be celebrated. They managed to try a shirt with a different texture? that deserves cake. Tried a new food, that deserves cake. Managed to go out without ear defenders, that deserves cake. Celebrate every little thing because in their world it’s a massive step forward.
As you can probably tell, living with taste hypersensitivity can be difficult and complicated. I gave you snippets of my life with taste SPD but I could literally write a dissertation sized blog on it. I hope that my story and these tips have given you an idea of what it’s like living with taste sensitivity.
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