A Teaching Aside
This post comes from watching kids (and adults) eat what is laughingly referred to as a lunch. I also watch these kids’ energy levels wax and wane across the day and can easily plot out the sugar highs and crashes these kids are having based solely on their classroom behavior.
What am I seeing?
I see a disturbing number of children in a school setting being given little more than a series of candy bars and sugary snacks in lieu of a healthy lunch. I watch these kids live on a steady diet of energy drinks and sugary sodas. I watch them get hyperactive and lose control over themselves. Then I watch them crash and become grumpy and intolerably stubborn when the sugar high inevitably collapses into a mild hypoglycemic shock. Then I watch them drag their feet as they head out the door homeward, presumably to start the process anew.
…And those are the normal kids…
When I look at the autistic kids at school I see exactly the same thing, only worse. I see a lunchbox containing a Froot Roll-Up, a Dr. Pepper, a package of Little Debbie Swiss Cake Rolls, and an individually wrapped string cheese (the kind that survives 6 hours at room temperature). I see another containing a small bag of pretzels, a baggie full of Tootsie Rolls, and a “juice” box (no more than 10% juice). Yet another contains two Capri Sun, a hot dog cut into pieces, a bag of skittles, and a Coca Cola. The winner of the day is the child with a Pepsi and a Lunchable.
I am going to compare these lunches with the standard school lunch from the same day: a chocolate milk (1%), a ham and cheese sandwich (2 slices of ham loaf and a slice of cheddar cheese on a standard white roll-mayo and mustard in packets on the side), pickles, a whole pear, a bag of Baked Lays Potato Chips, and a small container with a green salad and ranch dressing. I will admit that I am not a particular fan of the school lunch either, but it has two distinct advantages over the from home lunches. One, it actually has a sufficient number of calories to feed a child for an afternoon. And two, proteins, carbs, fats, as well as sugars that a child needs to function are all represented in the lunch.
The reason I bring all this up is that fairly often I see behavioral problems in children that I am willing to attribute to poor diet and the resulting sugar-fueled hyperactivity more than any other factor. I see the kids throw violent temper tantrums, demonstrate impaired cognitive function, and fall asleep in class when they run out of sugar and go into a mild hypoglycemic shock when they crash. This tends to be a daily occurrence.
This bugs me because it is an easy fix. A painfully easy fix. It does not take a Ph.D. in neuroscience to see that these kids’ brains are not working on all cylinders when they are starving. Ditto when they are on a sugar high. Below I will give an example of what I see and how behavior is altered.
A specific example
My example is from a field trip I went on. The kids were well behaved at first. Conveniently, they all received a bagged school lunch at our first stop, so they all had an even start. For some of the kids I was able to tell because their normal post-lunch uncontrollable hyperactivity was notably absent. We played on a playground for a while and then went on to our activity. During the activity, all of the children were bought a soda (24 oz. to boot). My back of the napkin calculations determined that the kids all drank approx 3/8 cup of sugar in slightly under 30 min. Some of them had family there that proceeded to purchase ice cream sundaes as well. I know all this because I wrote all of this info down so I could track behavior later on in the day. I am happy I had.
Well, within the hour the kids were bouncing off the walls and starting to severely misbehave. They were running into the areas they were specifically told not to investigate. They started to get moody and hit each other rather than to continue playing together nicely as they had not an hour before. And worse, their general social skills and adaptive function went out the door. Not good. Especially for a large group of autistic children. The bus ride home 2 hours later was even worse. Not a nice face or well-behaved child to be seen.
Worst part? All of this was entirely preventable.
Well my child won’t eat what I give him, So I give him what he will eat.
When I go into these topics I generally get notified that I have no idea how hard it is to have a kid that will not eat “normal” food. They have to give the kid what he will eat.
I call BS on this. My late twin brother would not eat anything green put on his plate. He literally threw peas at my sister for trying to give him 4 peas on his plate. That in no way prevented Kyle from eating pretty much everything else he was fed. If ever I was eating a piece of fruit (especially a pear) I had to be quick or he would swipe it out of my hands before it reached my mouth.
Yes. Kyle had a wicked sweet tooth and in hindsight I think we let him eat too much sugar. But that is why I am so quick to notice these dietary trends I am seeing in my students. We have to stop giving our loved ones excuses to eat poorly. Especially when they have a disability that already puts them at a disadvantage.
My advice is this: feed your autistic loved ones what they need, not what they want. Do this at dinner. Tonight. If they do not want to eat it, then they get to sit at the table and watch everyone else eat. Then, and only then, they can leave. If they whine for food or sweets later, give them their dinner from the fridge and make them eat it. If they tantrum, give them the food from the fridge and make them eat it. If they throw it all over the house, make them clean it up and then go hungry. That was their dinner. There is no other option.
This also extends to lunch. Now that it is summer, we can start training our kids for next year at school. Every day at lunch follow the same logic. Only provide healthy options, and wait them out until they eat it.
In my experience hunger will make them eat what you give them. Autistic kids are particularly stubborn, but they will eat, I promise. That and I promise they are not in as much pain as they are dramatizing. You just have to be patient enough to let your children realize that you are serious and they have no choice in the matter but to eat what you give them.
When the school year begins in August, either pack them a good, healthy lunch or pay for school lunch. This way, they will have the ability to perform in school and in life when they are well fed. Or at least they are given the chance to. It also lets you show you love them enough to do what is best for them.