As a mom of an SPD kid I have heard this many times, along with “She won’t starve to death” or any number of statements that all meant the same thing: If you stop catering to that brat she will eventually eat like everyone else”. Well that is not true and I am here to explain why:
SPD is a brain based disorder that interferes with how the brain receives information from the various sensory systems. That is why people with SPD might find sounds too loud or clothes too itchy. Eating is an activity that activates many sensory systems at once and that can be problematic.
First, we eat with our eyes, even Neuro-typical people lose their appetite when asked to eat something that looks unappealing. Hello Haggis anyone?? Second, foods have tastes, smells, textures and even sounds that can overwhelm and confuse the brain turning an innocuous meal into a mental war zone.
Many kids are simply overwhelmed by all the sensory input related to food. Add to the fact that food (in our society) comes with so many “rules” like – stay seated, eating with fingers is rude, and, the worst, you just have to have ONE BITE!. These additional restrictions create a lot of anxiety and many kids lose their appetite before they even sit down just from the stress.
My daughter is a finger eater. I was always pretty lax about it and did notice that on the few occasions that I insisted she used cutlery (what will the neighbors think!!??) she immediately lost her appetite and said “I’m actually not hungry anymore”. Now that I understand SPD I realize that she was using her fingers to get information about the food; Is this chewy? Does it have bits in it? What can I learn about this food before I put it into my mouth? By “pre-eating” it with her fingers, she was gathering the information she needed, in order to determine if her mouth would accept the food.
But the reason that SPD kids will in FACT starve themselves has to do with a little known sense called Interoception. Interoception is the ability to sense what the body is feeling internally. So things like hunger, the need to eliminate, pain, fatigue and even emotions are all transmitted to the brain via interoception. As we know, kids with SPD have difficulty interpreting sensory input to begin with and interoception is no different. Aside from that – kids with SPD are often so overwhelmed by external input (traffic, people, clothing) that, as a coping mechanism, they block out internal sensory input as a way to reduce the sheer amount of things that they need to process at any given time.
So in fact, some kids really might starve to death. They really can very easily get turned off eating in the blink of an eye, and they may be receiving confusing messages about hunger. Of course this is a spectrum disorder and there are kids who are seekers (crave sensory input) and avoiders (overwhelmed by sensory input) so, on the flip side you can have kids who are always hungry and never seem satiated – again Interoception! But this article pertains to the vast majority of parents who are constantly trying to defend their child’s “picky” eating to well meaning friends and family. Often times they struggle to defend their children because, quite frankly, they don’t really understand it themselves. Hopefully this post sheds some light on a very confusing and frustrating situation and arms you with the information you need to educate others!