Have you ever blown rice crisps from a square of seaweed? Or used your pointer finger to draw a dragon in your almond butter? What about scooped up your broccoli with a plow and then dumped it into your mouth? And then, of course, have you ever catapulted garbanzo beans from your mouth into a big purple bowl?
Food play is a key step in your relationship with food. Just as we would interact with a new gadget or a toy, it is also critical to understand all of the basics of the food that enters your body. How does it bounce when it falls from your plate? Is it rough or smooth to the touch? Can you make a shape out of your food – and then demolish it with your fingers? Yes, food play is one ladder rung that cannot be missed.
I do remember, however, growing-up and understanding that food was for eating, only. And, my family competed in the clean-plate club each night (Note: I don’t recall ever winning this competition). For me, creating a strawberry pie with my yogurt and fresh strawberries would have landed me on the first step of the stairs – in a glorified time-out. Food was for eating, only. And, had I dared to catapult my garbanzo beans into a bowl … then there would clearly be no dessert for me after dinner. I’m not saying that any of this is wrong or doesn’t work. In fact, I have a very healthy relationship with food. I enjoy everything from artichokes to hamburgers to sauerkraut. However, my childhood growth and development was considered typical.
Being on the spectrum changes not only the perception of food, but of the smells and textures associated with food. To alleviate the fear around new smells and textures, we explore food through play. When we draw a smiley face in the almond butter, it is because we are creating a positive memory or association with almond butter. And for my son, almond butter is literally the glue that holds together his gluten-free pretzel house. It is not something he enjoys eating (just yet).
And when we can play with our food, then we can also create and bake and cook food. The playfulness associated with food transformed our food experiences just recently. My son now enjoys cutting carrots, apples, cucumbers, radishes, bread, and even lettuce. He uses a set of plastic chef knives (created just for kids), rolls our a cloth towel, and begins his ritual of cutting food. And he makes a mess. Lettuce leaves hang from the dishwasher and carrot wheels spin across the floor. The point is that he is taking a step – or a leap.
And when he leaps, my heart jumps with him.
So, in my tiny home, we have a no-thank you bowl for food that doesn’t feel good in our mouths or just doesn’t smell the right way. We say things like, “that was interesting,” and we spit it into the bowl. We no longer say, “that is disgusting,” or “gross,” or “keep that away from my mouth.” No, we now have a positive thought pattern around food. And for this, I am thankful.