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Autistic burnout & Food.

My child is in burnout and isn't eating much. What can I do?

This is one I get asked about a lot. So, I thought I'd share a bit of insight.

We've covered burnout and why it happens so if we put that in the context of eating there are going to be a few challenges -

1. Underresponsive interoception. As I've said previously, interoception is the ability to feel what's going on on the inside. So, if we're burnt out, the chances are that we won't feel hungry. Our brains are so overloaded and we're in a state of extreme arousal. We don't have the attention spare to regulate our senses.

2. Executive function. Ever think about the work involved in figuring out we are hungry, deciding what we want to eat, and then going through the steps to do it? That's a lot of effort for a brain that's in safe mode and running on empty.

3. The need to eat is a demand, so as above, it's a lot of steps, but we will also resist demands due to limited executive function as we are in self-protection mode.

4. Think about the sensory experience of eating. We've got taste, touch, smell, proprioception (chewing) and interoception (digesting, swallowing etc). If you're burnt out and struggling to function, is it any wonder that we naturally resist putting more demands on ourselves to manage the sensory experience of eating?

5. Autistic inertia. When we are burnt out, we will seek to be engaged in monotropic thinking (hyperfocus) as this gives us a break. I suppose you could think of it as a kind of meditation as it switches off a lot of the 'noise.' We have significant difficulty switching attention. If we're engaged in something deeply, it can often be to the detriment of anything else, including food. The difficulty switching focus will be increased because to us, that takes some real mental gymnastics… which if we're burnt out, we don't have the spoons for.

Things that help.

Samefoods – We can lessen the sensory impact by eating the same things, prepared in the same way, served on the same crockery etc. It means we know what to expect, so nothing is surprising and we have a pretty good gauge of exactly how many spoons will be required to eat them.

NEVER EVER tamper with samefoods… you know the old trick of hiding veg in the mash… DON'T DO IT… it's a way we can meet our need to eat without challenging our brains to much. If you mess around with it, it's likely to damage trust and cause a meltdown. It's not a good idea.

Lower the demands – The traditional parenting handbook? BURN IT! Having to sit at the table every day and eat at the same time as everyone else when we're already struggling is torcher. Let us eat as and when we feel able in an environment/way that works for us. The most important thing is that we are eating, right?

Lower expectations – Healthy eating IS essential, but if your child is struggling to eat… it's EATING anything that important right now.

Leave the food we like around and easily accessible – fridge in the bedroom with our favorite brand of yoghurt? Why not? Leaving bowls of crisps around that we can pick at should we wish… as long as we're eating! That's the main priority here.

Try not to ask too many questions regarding food. This is a demand… and it requires an instant response. Chances are we will shut down or give a generic masked answer we think you want to hear. We're often hyper empathic, so disappointing a parent hurts us. If you have to ask questions, keep it low-key and casual i.e., "I'm doing a shopping list. If there's anything you want on it let me know when you're ready?" OR even better communicate via text, there's no demand to provide an instant response, lowers the risk of us disappointing you by giving the wrong answer, and we can process how we want to reply.

Use screens! It's a fantastic distraction from the sensory input and demand element. Additionally, if your young person is ADHD like my family and me, it's almost impossible to sit and focus JUST on eating for a whole 5 minutes… THE BOREDOM! Screens help.

You know how I said to burn the traditional parenting handbook? Chocolate with ketchup for breakfast? Brilliant they're eating! Don't worry about what's "appropriate" to eat at specific times of the day.

Finally … be aware of our energy. Hyper empathy is a genuine thing for us; if you're anxious, then we're anxious. It won't help the situation. I know it's hard…but take a breath… we need you to be safe to coregulate.

If you are very worried or your child is losing weight please seek medical advice.

I hope that helps? Much love Tanya <3

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