We meet many families with autistic youngsters, and a common theme for a good old fashioned moan seems to be mealtime dramas.
‘The family that eats together stays together,’ or so the old adage mocks.
As a young woman, eagerly anticipating family life, it was mealtimes that captured my imagination. In my mind’s eye I saw a brood of strapping boys, all wearing dungarees for some reason (wholesome, traditional….’normal’). All clamouring for ladels of the home-cooked bounty spread before them. Broths, stews, steaming pies, home baked bread with creamy yellow butter. Cakes and fruit afterwards. Cheese. Endless courses, bountiful abundance. My idea of a vital, thriving family centered around the food that would sustain it.
Despite the odds stacked against us, I still enforce the rule that the family eat together whenever possible. The stuff that my family is eating, and the enthusiasm with which it goes ‘down the hatch’, however, is a far cry from my vision of domestic bliss.
We have one Type 1 diabetic (Richard), one vegan/vegetarian (depending on the strength of desire for cheese and eggs at the mealtime in question) (Rosie), one finger feeder who carefully selects only dry, brown food, untouched by other foodstuffs (Lenny) and one fan of soft, mushed together ingredients who is apt to choke on anything too chewy or crispy (Daisy). And then there is me.
After many years of encouragement, Lenny is now willing to join us for meals. For a long time he would roost beneath the table, nibbling at a Yorkshire pudding or a piece of breaded chicken. Before that, he would run naked around the dining room and I would follow, sneaking morsels into his mouth like a determined mother bird feeding a highly excitable chick. So nowadays to see Lenny loitering with the family (always standing; to go so far as placing his bottom on his allotted seat would perhaps be a step too near commitment), sneaking suspicious glances at his plate of brown, dried goods and occasionally taking the odd begrudging bite, this fills me with a glow of satisfaction.
Daisy is a grabber. She loves to eat and makes no distinction between her own plate of food and the next person’s. For mealtimes, her wheelchair is brought to the table, and her lap belt securely fastened before the food is brought in. I’m not entirely sure that this is legal, but if anyone is willing to devise a workable alternative, then I am all ears. Her mushed up version of the family meal is spoon or fork-fed to her, allowing lots of time for chewing and swallowing. Daisy has to be seated just over arms-length away from the table, to avoid the lightning fast thievery that would result in teatime revolution. Even with time for chewing and swallowing, she tends to store food hamster-style, releasing a masticated glob the moment she is offered a drink. This offensive by-product must be swiftly spirited away to avoid offence to other diners.
Of course, it is not mere nutritional diligence that drives me to force this ritualistic get-together at the end of each working day. I hate the thought of t.v. dinners, of each family member ‘s daily experiences remaining unshared, conversation sacrificed to the echoing canned laughter of sit-coms.
Daisy is none-verbal, so I often volunteer snippets from her home-school diary to provide a glimpse into her ‘world away from the family’. Lenny answers direct questions randomly, choosing his response from a repertoire of learned phrases that often bear no relevance to the question.
‘What did you do at school today, Lenny?’
‘Did you learn about tigers at school?’
‘Bob the Builder!’
‘Have you been singing, ‘Bob the Builder’ at school?
Rose is a teenager with Asperger’s, so, unless she is in the mood to converse (a joyous turn of events bringing a carnival atmosphere with it) her input can be limited.
And Richard is a man, so….
So valiantly, I continue! Each day a variety of dishes are rustled up, mushed up, separated so that one component does not touch its neighbour (heaven forbid!) and the game of conversational encouragement is played out again.
But it is paying off. Who would imagine that an unusual family like ours could regularly, and without alarming incident, eat out at cafes and restaurants? Or join in group picnics? For me, these simple pleasures underpin the happiness of family life, and I am not prepared to relinquish them without a fight.