If you don’t have a child with autism, you may never have heard the term: “PDD.” It stands for Pervasive Developmental Disorder and it’s a common diagnosis for young children on the autism spectrum. It is more vague than autism, and even though it’s been explained to me many times, I have to admit that I don’t really get the distinction between the two. So there’s a lot to dislike about “PDD” — it’s not in the common lexicon, it’s confusing, and when you do finally get a handle on what it is, no one in the real world knows what you’re talking about.
But I like the word “pervasive” a lot, because no matter which diagnosis your child has, this apt term tells it like it is: This diagnosis is going to affect everything in your child’s life. Not just speech, not just social skills, not just learning, not just fine and gross motor skills; everything. Including food.
Brooks’s eating challenges started at birth. We know now that the muscles in his mouth, the same ones that later failed him when he tried to speak, were too weak to breast feed. At the time we simply settled into bottle-feeding and chalked it up to one of those situations where “plan b” was not so bad. His next major detour off the “typical” food road was when he turned one and we switched from formula to milk, which prompted him to go on a liquid strike. Even our efforts to return to formula were fruitless; we had, it seemed, ruined his experience of drinking beyond repair, and that was that. So for about a year, Brooks didn’t drink. Fortunately, he never failed to thrive: he was still eating a lot of water-based baby food.
A large part of his initial therapy was re-introducing liquids, and slowly, he did start to drink again. His eating habits were picky and compulsive — his “safe” foods were few, and favored for every meal if we let him (and we often had little choice). Then he was done with them, and chose two or three new ones. During this time, we put Brooks on the GFCF (gluten-free casein-free) diet for two major reasons: it was very healthy, and there were anecdotes that it would help his autism, if not cure it. Perhaps that’s the case for a some kids (although none I know), but after a year and a half, Brooks’s major delays persisted. We opted to expand his palate to any food he would try, regardless of its dietary content.
Mealtimes with toddlers are often fraught, but with Brooks, they were always challenging. When he was very young, I had to sing to get him to eat anything. Then it was my turn to go on strike, forcing him into non-musical meals. Our “positive reinforcement” model was never on display as much as when Brooks actually tried a new food — we made up songs for him, we played instruments, we danced (and we are NOT dancers!).
Bit by bit (or, rather, bite by bite), Brooks has expanded his food repertoire into typical childhood favorites: mac and cheese, hot dogs, hamburgers, spaghetti. He eats more with his hands than we’d like him to, he has trouble chewing pizza crust, and I would still sell a major organ to see him eat an actual vegetable. But I no longer have to bring food with me all the time or worry that he won’t find something to eat at a play date, restaurant, or even a birthday party.
Not only is Brooks eating more like an actual person these days (which my husband and I feared would never happen), he’s also talking about food more than ever: check out his inspired recipe for lemonade: