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Autism and Food-Related Issues, Part 2: Potlucks and Picnics

Just jumping into the series? Be sure to go back and read our first post, Autism and Food-Related Issues, Part 1: Help for Picky Eaters.

For many people, the idea of savoring a potluck picnic represents the best that summer has to offer. From the refreshing fruit dishes to the delicious barbequed meats to the crispy salad medleys, gathering with family and friends and dining al fresco might sound like the perfect way to celebrate the season. Yet, since such events represent a distinct deviation from mealtime norms, these get-togethers can often cause stress and panic for autism families.

In the 2010 HealthDay News article Mealtime a Challenge for Some with Autism, Geraldine Dawson, chief science officer for Autism Speaks, is quoted as saying:

Many autistic children have a strong need for consistent routine or ‘sameness’. They want things exactly the same way and that includes the food they’re eating. To introduce a variety of food or to have changes in food may cause stress and anxiety.

The prospect of a picnic or potluck can trigger feelings of apprehension for you and your child. To help combat these feelings and prevent future reactions, follow these tips to help you handle such events with calm and confidence.

Plan for success by visualizing various possible scenarios

Once the event is on your calendar, channel your inner football coach and create a playbook. Mentally run through the possibilities based on behavior you’ve seen at similar gatherings in times past. Then ask yourself, “If such-and-such happens, how will I/we respond? What’s my/our game plan?”

For example, if you know that your child tends to rush to the dessert table, then you’ll want to decide in advance what you’ll do if you see your child grab a huge handful of cookies. Work with your child’s ABA clinician to find ways to provide positive behavior support within the context of this particular event.

When done properly, advance planning helps to reduce stress by helping you and your family envision the most likely scenarios to occur and deciding how best to prepare or react.

As Charles Duhigg writes in his bestselling book Smarter, Faster, Better:

“Psychologists have a name for this kind of habitual forecasting: ‘creating mental models’ …. [and some of us build more robust models than others. We envision the conversations we’re going to have with more specificity …. As a result, we’re better at choosing where to focus and what to ignore.”

Prioritize your list

Once you’ve considered the various potentialities, heed Duhigg’s words and decide in advance “where to focus and what to ignore”. In other words, prioritize your list and pick just one or two issues that seem important enough to review with your child in advance.

Need some ideas? You might decide to focus on:

  • Making healthy eating choices
  • Avoiding foods that trigger allergic reactions
  • Selecting a variety of different foods from a buffet
  • Measuring out healthy portion sizes
  • Engaging in turn-taking behaviors and/or waiting in line for food to be served
  • Deciding in advance how many specific “treat” items are acceptable (and perhaps preventing a meltdown in the process)
  • Practicing an important social skill at the event, such as greeting other people
  • Practicing emotional regulation skills such as deep breathing
  • Utilizing adaptive equipment such as headphones or a trampoline for help with sensory overload or sensory processing disorder (SPD)

That said, remember to give priority to safety issues as you organize your list. In outdoor summer scenarios, preventing wandering and injury take precedence over other concerns.

In her blog post 5 Steps to a Meaningful Behavioral Support: Step 1-Part 2 Prioritize Behaviors, clinical psychologist and autism sibling Christine Reeve, Ph.D. of Autism Classroom Resources outlines a helpful rubric for evaluating which maladaptive behaviors to address. She writes:

“Dangerous behaviors [such as aggression and self-injury] are addressed first, then disruptive behaviors [such as screaming and crying] and then behaviors that are not that disruptive but can be very distracting or set the person apart [such as whining and self-talk].” 

 Review the possibilities with your child

Once you’ve decided which behaviors to focus on, start working with your child to prepare for the potluck or picnic. Always remember to break down complex skill sets into very small, manageable components.

Select a medium that works best with your child’s learning style and begin familiarizing them with what’s expected at the event. For example, you might role play, create a visual schedule of the event, or put together a series of printable social stories for summer activities.

It’s all about preparation

As Autism Speaks’ Family Services Going Out To Eat Guide notes, “One successful strategy when dealing with an unfamiliar routine is to prepare the individual ahead of time. Preparation can greatly reduce anxiety in unfamiliar environments and helps a person know what to expect.”

Want to gain access to dozens of professional ABA therapy video lessons? Sign up for FirstPath Autism today.