Awareness. We take it for granted, the things that our bodies sense and do for us seemingly automatically. The earth shifts under your feet as the grade changes beneath you and instantly your body reacts. You lean a certain way or adjust your gait to correct for the differences in the terrain. You don’t need to see the terrain change; your body senses it. You’re aware of it without the visual input and your body works to compensate for you. It’s as if your body tells you, “Don’t worry your pretty little head over that – I’ve got it covered.”
Think of the other things your body does automatically based on the sensory input that it receives. When you put a piece of food in your mouth, you don’t have to think about chewing – it just happens. You also don’t have to think about swallowing; that just happens, too. Your body senses that food, understands the way that it needs to be chewed, and sensing that food is at the proper chewed consistency, nerves relay that message to your brain which – in turn – triggers a swallow.
Really, if you think about it, if your brain didn’t run it’s autopilot “eating program” for you, you’d be unable to do just about anything but focus on the movement of your chewing. You’d have to think of when to swallow. You surely wouldn’t be able to carry on a conversation with your family or watch a TV show. You might even have difficulty sitting upright, as your focus remained on the food and your meal. It’s this very reason why so many us have a tendency to “eat mindlessly”, because we literally don’t have to think about what we’re doing when we eat.
For my little boy, the process of eating is a whole other story.
I’ve written recently about the struggles we’ve had simply introducing new foods. Well, the kicker with my baby boy is this – even if he accepts a new food, it doesn’t mean he can successfully eat it. We’ve discovered that certain textures – like very crunchy foods such as thick pretzel rods or kettle chips – can stimulate him to chew and trigger a swallow. However, foods that are mushy and a step up from purees – like casseroles, eggs, and soft breads – simply don’t give his body enough sensory input for him to be aware of the location of food in his mouth. So, give my boy something as simple as a piece of scrambled egg and he’ll hold it in his mouth – unchewed – indefinitely. For safety reasons, the only option is for one of us to reach in and sweep the food out of his mouth.
Then, there is the effort that goes into a meal. For Jack, he struggles to sit upright in a chair for too long. He’ll slouch over as his weaker trunk muscles and instability give way to his concerted efforts to just chew his food. Chewing takes so long that a meal lasts – on average – about 45 minutes to an hour for him. That would be considered a long meal for an adult, let alone a child who struggles to sit upright that long and who needs almost constant vestibular or proprioceptive input.
It also means that Jack gets pretzel rods or chips with every meal. Chips and a cereal bar? Sure! Eggs and a pretzel rod? Why not? If it gets him to just chew, I’d give him anything.
It also makes situations in which other people would need to feed Jack very stressful for us all. I often worry about leaving Jack in the care of someone else – including teachers and other school personnel. I leave very precise lists detailing the foods that Jack can and cannot eat successfully. I remind everyone that Jack cannot be allowed to eat without close supervision, because his lack of awareness of food in his mouth causes him to overstuff or to simply pocket unchewed or partially chewed food in his cheeks, which can cause him to gag or even choke.
Scary stuff for a mama.
I’ve felt a bit of a time crunch when it comes to helping Jack chew and swallow more appropriately. Jack has one more year in the half-day special needs preschool class at his elementary school before he moves to full-day, which includes lunch. Lunch - who knew that very event that seems to be the highlight of most schoolchildren’s day would be one that we would look towards with dread?
So, why not just build feeding assistance into his IEP? Well, this is where I’ve encountered a strange idiosyncrasy in the school system – their reluctance to provide feeding assistance because it doesn’t relate to being able to access the curriculum. My son entered the school system in March and is still waiting for an evaluation from the county’s feeding team, one which there is no timeline for nor is there any mandate to perform it in a timely manner. Instead, I’m left at the mercy of Jack’s teachers and para-pros, who I try to scare into being believers about Jack’s feeding needs. However, you and I both know that classrooms are too big, understaffed, and kids don’t always get the constant one-to-one attention that they require.
In part because of Jack’s rigidity, and also because it’s just what we have to do, we tend to maintain a pretty consistent feeding routine. Jack takes a bite of the meal. Mama massages Jack’s cheek to stimulate him to chew. Jack takes a bite of a pretzel to try to trigger a swallow. Jack takes a sip of milk to try to trigger a swallow. Repeat the last three steps until Jack finally swallows.
It just shows you how much we rely on our senses to tell our bodies what to do in ways that seem so automatic. For a child with a sensory processing problems, those same processes can be anything but easy and automatic. It’s hard watching my child struggle to do something as simple as chew and swallow his food, especially since I myself enjoy food so much – and if it weren’t for my running regimen, it would really show.
It is my hope that one day Jack will not only be able to chew and swallow his food in a safe and appropriate manner, but that he’ll also enjoy the experience of eating. I have yet to see it, but I long for the day when I look over to see his eyes aglow at the sight of a piece of cake or a bowl of ice cream. I’d love to hear him request a favorite food and see his smile when it is presented before him. Eating is one of life’s pleasures and not one that should be simply a torture or a chore to complete. It is what makes holidays, birthdays, and family events that much more memorable and special.
And I want Jack to enjoy every moment of it.