Pediatric Feeding Therapy Helps Child with Sensory Processing Disorder and Autism
For the first time, 4-year-old Chase Diehl is enjoying meals with his family. He can sit with his mom and dad at the table and enjoy his mother’s cooking.
Just six months ago, this seemingly simple activity was fraught with tears, refusal to eat, inability to sit still and frustration.
Chase has sensory processing disorder, a condition where the nervous system has difficulty processing the inputs from our environment in one or more senses – taste, sight, smell, hearing and touch. Someone with sensory processing disorder finds it hard to act upon sensory inputs, which can create challenges in performing everyday tasks. In addition to having a sensory disorder, Chase also has a diagnosis of autism.
Because of the sensory disorder, Chase literally became terrified of food. He would only eat a limited selection of preferred foods, including Wegman’s pumpkin muffins, Cheerios, Wendy’s French fries, Doritos, milk, water and Capri Sun juice boxes.
Chase’s mother, Jennifer Bortz, tried to expand his menu, but foods outside these offerings prompted an extreme reaction.
“I would beg him to try new things,” says Jennifer, “but he was terrified. Without these preferred foods, he would have starved.”
What Chase experienced was not the “picky eating” phase most toddlers go through. As a baby, he transitioned easily from breast feeding to solid foods, but he suddenly stopped eating around age two.
Knowing something had to change, Jennifer turned to Good Shepherd Rehabilitation’s Pediatric Feeding Therapy program. She met occupational therapist Kendall Butler, MS, OTR/L, who designed a therapy plan for Chase.
“With feeding therapy, there is no cookie-cutter approach,” says Kendall. “It’s very specific to the needs of the child.”
Kendall and Chase take small steps during their twice a week appointments to make food a positive, healthy experience. Much of Chase’s therapy focuses on “playing” with his food to encourage him to explore and alleviate stress around eating.
“We might spend a session smashing a blueberry or smearing applesauce,” says Kendall. “In turn, that leads to increased comfort, allowing him to put the blueberry between his teeth, lick his finger, and taste the food.”
By helping Chase build his confidence, he becomes more willing to try new tastes and textures. Every success, no matter how small, is celebrated with cheers and high fives.
As part of his therapy, Chase has also been working with Elizabeth Storck, MS, CCC-SLP/L, speech language pathologist, for speech therapy twice a week. With her help, he has been requesting foods by name and has been verbalizing what he wants.
In six months, Kendall, Jennifer and Elizabeth say Chase has made huge strides. Not only is he staying seated during meals, he has begun using utensils, where previously he would eat with his fingers. He also has started drinking from an open cup instead of relying on a straw.
More important, Jennifer sees Chase’s food choices growing by leaps and bounds. He’s exploring new taste and texture combinations like cereal with milk, lasagna and, spaghetti and meat sauce, Nerd’s candy, other brands of French fries and is interacting with a variety of fruits, including kiwis, apples, strawberries, bananas, peaches and mangos.
Chase also helps his mother harvest vegetables from their garden for their meals, a task that was extremely difficult for him in the past. He also loves taking part in getting his meals ready by grabbing his favorite spoons and forks and getting his napkin ready.
He recently tried cake at a friend’s birthday party – something he had never done before – and for the first time, he went trick-or-treating.
“He had such a good time playing with the kids and even ate a few M&MS®,” said Jennifer. “It was so nice to see him take part in something like that.”
None of this would have been possible six months ago.
In fact, Chase enjoys coming to therapy. When he sees Kendall approaching, he grabs his lunchbox and comes right in. She says he is increasingly demonstrating more “wants” during their therapy session, reaching for and requesting new foods.
Now that they can eat at home as a family, Jennifer would love to try another first – eating at a restaurant.
“That will be a huge milestone,” says Jennifer. “Thanks to Good Shepherd, we are getting there. Slow and steady wins the race.”