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Children with special needs can take longer to learn how to eat independently. Read these top tips for mealtimes.
Eating a meal can be particularly challenging for children who have disabilities. A lack of fine motor skills (like finding it hard to hold a fork), sensory restrictions (like being paralysed or unable to see) and co-ordination difficulties are some of the many reasons that may delay the learning process. This can be frustrating for you and your child.
Author Deborah French has four children, two of whom have special needs. Her eldest daughter, Amariah, has Down's syndrome and her son, Henry, has autism spectrum disorder . "Socialising with others generally includes eating together," she says. "So learning how to eat neatly is crucial to helping our children to integrate."
Deborah, who also runs cookery classes for children with special needs, came to realise that nagging her children about their table manners wasn't working. Instead, she developed practical solutions to help them learn, with rapid results.
"When stress or frustration controls your reactions while trying to teach your child, they will reflect your mood and act accordingly. They will fear your reaction to their mistakes, and as a result will not be able to give their best efforts. Give instructions calmly, with positive reinforcement."
"As your child gets older, even though it may still be necessary for them to wear a bib to protect their clothing, this can also be demoralising and embarrassing in front of other family members or peers. An apron is more discreet and will help eliminate any negative feelings your child may harbour before mealtime has even begun."
"Irrespective of the nature of your child's disability, take the time to involve them in preparing the table for dinner. Even watching you collect cutlery, cups and napkins helps your child to feel they have participated. During this process, talk your child through what you are doing and why. For example: 'We use a fork to pick up pieces of food on our plate instead of our fingers. That way, the fork gets dirty and not our fingers'."
"As parents, we instinctively opt for plastic or disposable utensils to avoid breakage and to make cleaning up easier. But for a child who has either low or high muscle tone or difficulty with their fine motor skills, a plastic fork simply feels like air. These children need to be able to feel the cutlery they are holding. The same is true for plastic plates and cups, which are unstable and easily knocked over. Solid cutlery and crockery will make it easier to teach your child how to eat."
Read about other eating equipment that can help.
"If you eat your evening meal later than your child, compromise by ensuring that during your child's mealtime, you too are seated at the table. Even if you enjoy your coffee or a smaller version of what your child is eating, they will be encouraged by your presence. You can then talk about your food and how you eat with your cutlery. Take note of how quickly your child imitates your actions."
"The most effective way of teaching self-awareness to a child is to let them view themselves. Even as adults, how often after enjoying a meal with friends have we been unaware that a chunk of food, usually green in colour, has become wedged between our front teeth?
"Apply this theory when helping your child to understand food residue on their face after eating. Before they leave the table, place the mirror in front of them and encourage them to look at their reflection and clean themselves using the wet cloth."
"Again, irrespective of your child's disability, teach them how to participate in the cleaning up process after eating according to their ability. This may involve them handing their plate to you or taking it to the side to be washed; alternatively wiping their place clean as best they can. Any level of participation helps to develop their self-awareness and obligations at mealtimes.
"It's important to remember that everyone likes to feel valued and needed. When you give your child responsibilities, they feel important to you and the family. This in turn boosts their self-confidence and speeds up the learning process."
Read our interview with Deborah about parenting children with special needs.
To help your child learn good eating skills, you may find that specialist eating or drinking equipment will make a real difference. The Caroline Walker Trust, a food charity in the UK, recommends a number of helpful aids to eating that parents of children with learning disabilities may find useful for their child.
For more information and details of suppliers, visit the Living Made Easy website.
Important: Our website provides useful information but is not a substitute for medical advice. You should always seek the advice of your doctor when making decisions about your health.