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Supporting the Development of Eating Skills in Children with Special Needs

Let’s face it; teaching children with special needs to eat independently takes time....and patience. Lots of it!

Parents and carers strive to embed what they believe to be basic skills: holding a fork or a spoon and the process of using said utensils to scoop and spear pre-cut food and eat it all; without spilling a drop.

When your little ones with special needs are unable to carry out these tasks without support, it can sometimes be upsetting, frustrating and worrying. For both them and for you. Watching them struggle with what seem to be rudimentary tasks that ‘every other child their age’ has mastered may cause us to put unnecessary pressure on ourselves and them. Society does no better in reinforcing our sense of failure. Whether we like it or not, a certain level of decorum has become the expected norm when dining in public — especially in older children. Most parents - at one point or another - has felt the dreaded heated stare of an onlooker as their child accidentally spills yet another glass of juice, or has heard a not-so-subtle ‘tut’ as a ketchup-coated chicken nugget is propelled across the table into the path of a passing diner.

It’s good to start by taking time to reflect on the fantastic accomplishments that you and your child has achieved to date. This includes the routines you have already been able to implement and the successes that have come as a result.

To make dinner-time a breeze, try tackling each challenge separately. By working towards small, achievable goals; you'll not only preserve your sanity but also enable your child to recognise and celebrate their own successes along the way:

Special_Needs_eating_support_independence_tipsTall or narrow cups are easier to knock over so aim for wider, shallower ones which are more difficult to topple. Add a straw or a lid with a special opening to aid drinking. Cups with handles may add extra support for children who struggle with grip. Spillages are common at the dinner table, especially with children with special needs. It’s natural for a child to spill food or drink occasionally. Frequent spillages can be attributed to one or more factors. The first may be as simple as positioning. Changing the layout of their meal placing may help to avoid tumbles as they no longer have to reach across other objects.

Plates or bowls with raised sides can limit food escaping over the edges while it is being scooped or speared.

Special_Needs_eating_support_independence For the majority of children with special needs, a little extra time and practice is sufficient in helping them to overcome most of their barriers and giving them the independence to feed themselves independently. Another challenge when eating comes down to the manipulation of forks and spoons. Even the most well-designed cutlery can be unwieldy for small hands so select forks and spoons with built-up handles. If the problem lies in getting the food onto the fork, begin by spearing it for them and then allowing them to feed themselves. If you need to help them guide the food to their mouth, try supporting them from behind so that both of your hands are moving in the same direction.

The challenge for parents is getting the time balance right. Forcing a child to persist for extended periods of time will only demotivate them and frustrate you. If you find this becoming the case, it’s best to finish up the meal as smoothly as possible and get back to practising at the next meal. Similarly, even if you are in a hurry, don’t rush straight to taking over and feeding them yourself without giving them the opportunity to be independent. This will undo everything you have both worked so hard to achieve.

Finally, don’t expect results overnight. Notice the small daily changes and encourage your child to do the same. Help your child to adopt a growth mindset approach. Instead of thinking “I can’t do it”, help them switch their mindset to “I can’t do it right now…”

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