Messy Eating

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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.

-Nancy Burrows

James’ mom

  • Tracy Hooper
    Posted at 19:32h, 09 May Reply

    Bless James’ mother’s heart for her patience and cleaver strategy in helping James eat with a fork. She is giving him a social gift for a lifetime.

  • mbmarsden
    Posted at 15:12h, 13 May Reply

    I know. The parents are on the front lines and working harder and with more love than I think they ever imagined! Thanks Tracy.

  • Janice
    Posted at 14:48h, 24 May Reply

    God bless James.. and Mom your doing a great job with him!

  • Elena Prwivo
    Posted at 15:38h, 24 May Reply

    I liked your anxiety in school video. My son is trying to return to school after a prolonged absence due to illness…I like the ideas used to help deal with the anxiety. Hopefully they will work for my son also!

    • Mary Beth Marsden
      Posted at 23:48h, 24 May Reply

      Good Luck Elena!

  • Crystal
    Posted at 17:43h, 25 May Reply

    Very cool! This is just like our Ryan. He perseverates on spinning things, trains, water, doors, elevators, and of course the ipad. People have expressed how mean they think we are because “he’s just enjoying himself” but in reality, letting him perseverate on an object is a lot like giving an alcoholic a bottle and saying “here, entertain yourself”. I know that’s harsh, but we see the same behavioral changes when he’s allowed to just go nuts on something for too long. I’d begun to think we were limiting him too much, or I was wrong about this… thank you for the encouragement!

  • Michelle
    Posted at 23:56h, 26 May Reply

    Thanks for sharing this. My daughter also has problems with eating with her hands. She can use a spoon and fork but finds it easier to use her hands. And, she loves the ipod. This gave me a great idea to use the ipod for incentive for her too. She is only 4 so it may be harder for her to understand, but we will give it a try. Thanks again!!!

  • Joanna Bell
    Posted at 16:31h, 03 July Reply

    I see a kid EATING BROCCOLI!! Regardless of an eating issue, I am impressed!

  • Tim
    Posted at 19:36h, 01 September Reply

    I know I am “late to the party” but very nicely done and great idea using the picture phone to help teach James not just about using utensils, but also, abstract thinking. Keep up the work, do not give in and I hope you have seen progress by now.

    It just takes not giving up and our kids can learn anything!

  • Lisa
    Posted at 17:09h, 02 April Reply

    My Zack is twelve, very verbal, very intelligent, and he has just learned to use that darn silverware over this past year ;). He still has issues with cutting, leaning over his plate, and he can still make quite a mess. Eating with his grandmother around was stressful because she would turn it into a huge issue. I was never worried because I knew we would get there one of these days ;).

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