Tuesday 6 March 2018

Fussy Eater or Food Aversion due to Sensory Processing Difficulties? Which one is it?

I have lost count of the number of times that we've been told that we should just make the little superheroes eat what has been put in front of them or that they'll eat when they are hungry. It is statements such as these that utterly infuriate me. It is also statements like these that indicate that people really aren't taking on board what we say about the little superheroes eating habits.

But before I start talking about the little superheroes eating habits, we need to discuss a little background information first.

Both O and L have sensory processing difficulties which impacts on various areas of their lives. Sensory processing difficulties can, and does, make life quite interesting at times, especially when it comes to food.

To have an understanding of food related sensory difficulties, you first need to have an understanding of sensory processing itself.

Sensory processing refers to our ability to interpret smells, tastes, sounds, touch, sight and movement. The way in which we all process the information that we receive on a daily basis is unique to each individual. Every day our bodies are bombarded with an almost constant yet varying sensory input from a number of sources. At times we may be aware of this sensory input but the majority of the time, we are totally oblivious to the constant bombardment of sensory input.

However there are many individuals that struggle with this constant bombardment of sensory input and this can have drastic consequences on how they deal with what is happening around them on a daily basis. This is commonly known as Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) or Sensory Processing Difficulties.

An individual can be over responsive to some sensory input types, in other words they are gaining too much sensory input. An over responsive response to sensory input has been described to us as feeling as though an individuals skin is literally crawling or that their head feels like it is going to explode as sounds, smell and lights are magnified ten fold.

Or they may be under responsive to other sensory input types - they're not gaining enough sensory input. Having an under responsive response generally means that the individual will actively seek out sensory input.

The tricky thing about SPD is that an individual can be both over responsive and under responsive depending on what environment that they are in. Like Autism, SPD is also a spectrum. Mmmmm I did say that it makes life interesting.

When it comes to food, and this includes the taste, the texture and the smell of the food, the same applies. 

Individuals may prefer one type of food over another. They may prefer crunchy instead of soft foods or visa versa. They may prefer bland to spicy foods. They may eat foods of only a particular colour.

L prefers crunchy food to those that have soft textures. O is very sensitive to the smells of different foods, both raw and cooked foods.

L used to, and still does at times, over stuff his mouth with a food, particularly if it is a food of a soft texture. This tends to indicate that with soft foods, he is under-responsive and needs to put more of the food in his mouth to get the "feel" of the food to get the same sensory input as when he eats crunchy foods.

O on the other hand with some foods will take the smallest bite possible. This indicates that she may be over-responsive to certain foods. The smallest bites have a huge sensory input for her that can be very overwhelming.

And for a child who has a food aversion, never ever change the brand of the food that they will eat. This does NOT end well for anyone. They just know!

Having two children with food aversions makes meal times extremely interesting. We have a list of fall back foods that we know that O and L will eat and at meal times we pick our battles. We don't offer a buffet of food but if for some reason either O or L refuse to eat what is offered because they don't like the smell or it looks funny, tin spaghetti or baked beans it is.

Why? Because at least then they are eating something.

Making a child who has a food aversion eat the food that they have the aversion to always ends in a big mess and lots of tears. O or L may try to eat the food, with a lot of complaining and tears, but I can guarantee that the food will come straight back up. It is a battle that really is not worth fighting.

Over the last 9 and 5 years respectively, we have been able to introduce O and L to new foods with some success. Occasionally O and L will surprise us and decide that they now like a food type that they once had an aversion to. When this happens, it is cause for celebration! Yet another food type that we're able to add to the "will eat" list! And occasionally their sensory processing difficulties will kick in to over drive and foods that they once ate, will become off limits.

Introducing new foods takes a lot of time and perseverance from everyone. The important point that I have learnt is that when O or L turn their nose down at a particular food, I don't take it personally. They are not doing it deliberately, their sensory system is simply in overload and they can not help it.

Now back to the fussy eater or food aversion due to sensory processing difficulties part of this post. There is a HUGE difference between being a fussy eater and having a food aversion due to sensory processing difficulties.

A fussy eater won't eat certain foods simply because they don't like the taste. If that is the only food available, they may eat it simply because they're hungry and that is all that is available.

Having a food aversion due to sensory processing difficulties, well you've got buckley's chances of getting an individual to consume the food. The reason for this is that the taste or the texture or the smell of the food is being processed in their brain as being dis-pleasurable in some way. And when you read dis-pleasurable, read "extremely un-comfortable in a skin crawling type of feeling."

I could be considered a fussy eater because of the fact that I don't like eating brussel sprouts. The reason being that I simply don't like the taste of them but I will eat them if they are on the menu. I won't like them (sorry to all those people who love brussel sprouts) but I will eat them. 

O on the other hand, if she tries to eat an orange, she starts gagging the moment the orange goes anywhere near her mouth. Her gag reflex automatically engages!

If I am hungry and brussel sprouts are the only thing on the menu, I will eat them. Why? Because I am hungry.

If O is hungry and the only food item that is on the menu are oranges, well, she will just go without. No matter what you say or do, O will not eat an orange. She would rather go hungry than eat an orange due to the un-comfortable sensation that she receives when she tastes orange. And if the orange is touching a food that she does like, she won't eat that food either. She is over-responsive to oranges and the slightest hint of orange on another food will also make her gag.

As mentioned above, making an individual with a food aversion eat the food that they have the food aversion to, will end up in a big mess.

So please, please, the next time you come across a child or an adult for that matter who is flat out refusing to eat a particular food, please take a moment to analyse why they are refusing. Could it be that they do genuinely have a food aversion to that particular food? They don't need judgement or criticism, they just need you to be understanding and patient.


  1. Oh I pray I won’t have a picky eater like myself! My child’s 5 months old and we’re getting him to try many things I as an adult would not! Life would be so much easier if I could make him whatever!

  2. Huh, this is so interesting. I've never thought of this. I wonder if I have some sensory issues (my oldest has a sensitivity to noise and crowds) because I also get easily overwhelmed by smells and textures. I've never really thought of it before but it might help me understand those with more severe difficulties more. Great post.

  3. This was so interesting! My niece has SPD, and this was very enlightening.

  4. Very Interesting ! I had never heard of this before. I must admit I am the eat it type

  5. My little one is a bit picky, but I'm sure she will grow out of it.. I never really thought about the connection between food and sensory issues.. you always write such interesting content.. I always learn something new.. thanks for sharing your story!


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