05 May Messy Eating
“iPad for Dessert”
My 9 year old son James was diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder – specifically PDD, with traces of Aspergers – when he was two and a half. He’s extremely verbal, incredibly bright (with many savant qualities), and remarkably sweet. His constant expressions of affection and emotion are almost antithetical to his diagnosis. His perseveration is not!
Over the past seven years, James has moved through a variety of fixations – shapes, numbers, letters, calendars, streets, maps, writing, and time. An overriding fascination with numbers seems to drive them all. For the last two years, he has had an intense fixation with digital clocks. This expresses itself in many ways – running to see the time every few seconds, talking incessantly about what time it is and what time we will arrive wherever we are going, timing himself doing a variety of activities, focusing on the timer in a game on the Wii or the DS. He finds clocks wherever he can – on thermostats, car dashboards, and of course, my iPhone. At the beginning of the school year, James would walk around the house staring at the time on my iPhone, “pretending” to drive somewhere, and playing with the sound effects on my phone.
Why did I allow it? Helping my older daughter with homework, making dinner, cleaning up, giving myself a break from constructively engaging him – it would start with a few minutes – and suddenly I would turn around and two hours had gone by. At school, teachers reported that James was constantly distracted, making lots of strange noises, and seemed very disconnected from what was happening around him. We knew we had to make a drastic change. Our behavioral therapists from The Shafer Center instituted a plan. James would get fifteen minutes after school to play on the iPhone, guaranteed. He would be allowed another fifteen minutes at 7:00pm, but these minutes could be lost. If he perseverated, did not listen to me, or engaged in unconstructive activity then minutes would be subtracted. He also had the chance to earn up to fifteen EXTRA minutes, by doing things we seek to encourage – playing interactively with me or his sister, engaging in non-repetitive behaviors with us or alone, clearing his plate, etc. After restricting the iPhone time to 30 minutes a day, we saw IMMEDIATE and POSTIVE changes at school and at home. James was more engaged, less distracted, and making fewer noises.
We decided to use this success to tackle another ongoing issue in our house – MESSY EATING! James just turned nine, and has been eating like a toddler for way too long. While he now has the motor skills to use utensils, he defaults to eating with his hands. He also nibbles his food, creating an amazing number of crumbs, and the mess on our floor after a typical meal was truly disgusting. The messy eating was not just a clean up issue for me – it was beginning to become a social issue as well. With help from our wonderful occupational therapist, we began by writing down the eating rules to remind James of what he SHOULD be doing. We also removed any reading or writing materials from the table (James has hypergraphia and is obsessed with writing). This ensured that James had two hands available to him (instead of writing with one) and that he was only concentrating on eating. We then took our iPhone minutes charts (which by now had been transferred to the iPad time) – and picked one rule – Using Utensils – to focus on. James was told that every time he used his hands instead of a utensil, he would lose a minute of his iPad time. After a week or so, I noticed far less food on the floor, much more utensil use, and a heightened awareness when he ate. The battle is far from won, but we are definitely making progress.