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BY Dawn

Holiday dinners with your special needs child

Nothing is more nerve wracking than sitting down for the family dinner. The host takes it personally when your child doesn’t eat her food. The adults expect proper table manners from all the children. This is an area where you are just going to have to cut your special needs child and yourself some slack. You simply can’t please everyone. Here are some common dinner situations and suggeestions for having an enjoyable meal with the relatives.

The picky eater
This child generally behaves at the table but refuses to eat and may comment on not liking the food. If this is your child, bring a side dish that you know he will like. If, for instance, your child doesn’t like spices added to vegetables, bring your own mashed potatoes so his food can match the meal at the table. Another choice is to feed your child before attending the family gathering. If he doesn’t eat their dinner, you know he had a decent meal earlier in the day.

The child who says, “This food stinks!”
For this child, the food literally stinks. If your child is sensitive to smells, practice ahead of time with more polite ways to say the food stinks without insulting the chef (e.g. “I have a hard time with new smells.” “The smell of this food is too much for me.”).

Because the smells of food can be so intolerable, you can have your child eat prior to attending. Then, for just this one night, allow her the chance to find some quiet time in another room while everyone else is eating.

If the child is expected to stay at the dinner table, place her at the end or corner of the table to be as far away from the food as possible. You might also try to get a big book and have it opened and sitting on top of the table in front of her. It can help act as a visual and olfactory shield to the offending food items.

If a relative comments about coddling your child, tell them, “Think of the nastiest thing you have ever smelled. Now multiply it by 10. This is what my daughter experiences everyday. We are working through this issue, but not today.”

The fidgety child
This child just can’t sit still at the table. He fidgets the entire time or continues to leave the table. If this is your child, the issue may be that your child’s feet aren’t touching the floor. A simple accommodation is to bring a plastic storage container to put under his feet.

Us adults also forget how boring adult table conversation can be. Bring some fidget toys to the table or something visually appealing that he can look at while he is eating.

If moving in and out of the chair is disruptive to family members, have your child eat at the beginning of the meal. Then ask him to be a helper. He can walk around the table with a basket of rolls to see if anyone wants one. Have him interview each person at the table while they are eating. He can ask each person the same question. This may become so entertaining that it becomes a new holiday tradition (e.g. Grandpa, what’s the strangest gift you ever received?).

The slow eater
This child eats one pea at a time and is the last one to leave the table. Fine motor deficits may make it difficult to use utensils properly. If this is your child, you may ask the host if your son can start eating ahead of time. Or snack on one food item that is ready early. This will help even out the time.

Eating slowly is usually not an issue unless the host needs to dismantle the table to make room for guests. If that is the case, make sure you seat your child at a regular table. As a last resort, move your child and his dish to another table so he can finish his meal.

The child with outbursts
Some children are nonverbal but may loudly hum or shriek unexpectedly. Others have uncontrolled repetitve movements or vocal tics. Here you are dealing with relatives who may be uncomfortable sitting at the same table with your child. Educating family members about your child’s particular disability can prove helpful in this situation. Focus on how much it means to your child to sit with the family.

You – “Johnny gets mean comments from other kids at the lunch table and is embarrassed by his verbal tics. He’s really looking forward to having a dinner where he’s not judged by everyone.”

You – “I know that Mary’s sounds can be disconcerting to others. But because she’s nonverbal, those sounds are her way of expressing joy at being here with everyone.”

The overstimulated child
The sights, smells and sounds at the dinner table may simply be overwhelming for this child. Once again, having a quiet area for your child during dinner time is a simple accommodation. If a quiet place is not possible, try bringing distraction items. An iPod, favorite book, portable game system or DVD player can help your child focus on her comfort items. It is more socially acceptable for your child or teen to “tune out” with these items than to negatively act out in someone’s home. As a last ditch effort, the bathroom can always provide a moment of sanctuary.

The child with a feeding tube
This is a sensitive subject for relatives who may be uncomfortable or squeamish about the feeding tube. If you normally tube feed your child at the dinner table, you may wish to discuss this with your relatives and see if they have any objections. An option would be to tube feed your child ahead of time and then come back to sit at the table and socialize with relatives (also allowing you time to eat).

Since many social gatherings revolve around food, ask your older child if she is comfortable watching others eat. If this is a source of sadness, you may wish to attend the family gathering after the dinner portion of the evening has been completed.

Please post your own success stories for having dinner with relatives at family gatherings!

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Written on December 16, 2010 by:

Dawn Villarreal is President of One Place for Special Needs, a national disability resource that lets you find local and online resources, events and even other families in your neighborhood plus thousands of articles, visual supports, social stories and more.

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