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Neurodiversity-Affirming Approaches to Feeding & Mealtimes

At CAYR Connections, we are dedicated to advocating for neurodiversity-affirming practices and creating environments where everyone can thrive. One area where these practices can make a significant difference is feeding.


That’s why we have Stephanie (Sorrentino) Mulholland, MS CCC-SLP, of Bite Sized Kids, PLLC, joining us for this month’s CAYRgiver Circle to discuss neurodiversity-affirming approaches to feeding and mealtimes. Rooted in respect for each person's unique preferences and experiences, these supports not only honor the unique sensory-motor profile of each person but also nurture their overall well-being and development. This blog was developed using both Stephanie's blogs as well as the author's clinical perspective as a fellow ND-affirming SLP.


RSVP for the virtual CAYRgiver Circle on 6/13 from 6:30-8pm to learn more and discuss with Stephanie and other parents/caregivers!


What Do We Mean by "Feeding"?

When we talk about feeding, we mean all the activities and skills involved in eating and drinking. This includes chewing, swallowing, trying new foods, and enjoying mealtime experiences. Feeding therapy, provided by Speech-Language Pathologists and Occupational Therapists, aims to support children in developing a healthier and more positive relationship with food.


Key Considerations for Neuroaffirming Feeding Supports

Here are some considerations to support a loved one’s feeding journey. Remember to adapt these strategies to fit the individual’s unique needs and family dynamics. This is not medical advice; always consult professionals for any medical questions or concerns.


Respect Bodily Autonomy

Every person has the right to make decisions about their own body, including what food they eat. When someone refuses a food, there's a reason behind it. Avoid using shame or guilt to coerce them into eating something they don’t want. Strategies like systematic desensitization that force interaction with refused foods without enthusiastic consent teach children to ignore their own sensations and feelings. This can be traumatic and create unhealthy relationships with food.


Develop Interoception Skills

Interoception is our body's internal signaling system, informing us of different sensations. This awareness guides our actions concerning safety, nourishment, and bodily functions and plays a crucial role in emotional regulation. Enhancing these skills helps children better understand their body's needs, including when to eat, what to eat, and how much to eat.


Honor and Accommodate Sensory Preferences and Aversions

Neurodivergent individuals may have heightened or reduced sensitivity to certain textures, tastes, smells, or temperatures. We can honor these preferences by offering a variety of food options that align with their sensory needs. Validate their experiences and avoid pressuring, guilting, or shaming them into trying new foods, as this can harm their long-term relationship with food.


Promote a Positive Mealtime Environment

Creating a calm, supportive, and pressure-free mealtime setting can enhance the eating experience for neurodivergent children. Building trust and nurturing secure relationships are paramount. Establish an environment without the pressure to try new foods to reduce anxiety and avoid triggering their nervous system. Encourage a predictable mealtime routine, accommodating their needs, whether that means standing up, moving around, or other adjustments.


Address Underlying Medical Issues

Gastrointestinal problems like reflux, constipation, food sensitivities, or stomach pain can affect appetite and willingness to eat. GI specialists can rule out any suspected medical reasons for feeding challenges, and dietitians can help brainstorm ways to avoid nutritional imbalances. 



Watch Out for Masking and People-Pleasing

Masking occurs when a neurodivergent person tries to conceal their traits to appear more neurotypical. During meals, signs of masking might include exclusive eating with one adult, selective eating in specific locations, or immediate refusal of unfamiliar foods. Over time, masking can have detrimental effects to long-term mental health and wellness.




Quick Recap:

- Neurodiversity-affirming feeding practices are IN; behavioral, compliance-based desensitization and force-feeding practices are OUT.

- Respect food refusals and get curious instead of pushy.

- Honor sensory preferences and help children understand how their sensory profile impacts their food experiences.

- Create a positive, calm mealtime environment.

- Offer preferred, accepted, and “safe” foods along with new foods and textures in a non-stressful way.

- Address underlying medical issues and consult neuro-affirming professionals like physicians, nutritionists, speech-language pathologists, and occupational therapists.


Conclusion:

At CAYR Connections, our mission is to create supportive environments where neurodivergent people and their families can thrive. By embracing neuroaffirming feeding supports, we ensure that mealtimes are positive and empowering experiences that nourish the body, mind, and spirit. Give us your thoughts in the comments, and join us to discuss more at this month's CAYRgiver Circle on 6/13!


Want to learn more? Here are a few of our favorite social media accounts to follow about neuro-affirming feeding:

@margos_wholebodynutrition

@rds_for_neurodiversity

@bitesizedkids

@feeding.your.adhd

@pediatricfeedingslp

@kelly_mahler

@lakeshore_affirmative


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