Family meals and how they run require the unpacking of a very strongly ingrained value in most families. When looking at it through the lens of understanding and respecting neurodiversity, there is a lot more to consider.
When we think about meals we think firstly about ‘eating’ - nutrition, growth, health. However, there is A LOT more that goes into meals and family mealtimes, more specifically. Family meals and eating in most cultures, imply a social engagement. People share and experience-share around food. We share of ourselves around the dinner table and are socially motivated to be part of the group. We do perspective taking, coregulation, and coordination/collaboration – all as part of a single family meal. Autistic and other neurodivergent children have differences with both the motor and sensory aspect of eating, and also with all the other dynamic aspects involved in ‘family meals’.
Sensory processing differences ,means it can be stressful to eat – textures, smells and tastes and the sounds of people eating (and talking) can be overwhelming and cause significant spikes in stress. Children can be mono-processors in that they can’t talk AND eat, because it changes the taste of the food or makes the act of eating more challenging. Motor challenges can impact how easily a child eats, and how hard that child needs to work on eating. Executive function challenges can impact how able a child is to initiate eating, stay on track while eating and how easily distracted a child becomes. Interoception challenges can make eating harder and these challenges are often amplified when attention is split between eating and ‘being with people’. That is a lot to contend with, you have to admit!
Now consider all the other ‘social and dynamic’ factors that make family meals so difficult. Processing sensory information in conjunction with dynamic streams of social communication – multiple people talking together, processing what they are each saying, timing when to eat and when to speak, coming up with ways to respond to others quick enough so they don’t move on with the conversation by the time you have your say! People and conversations are unpredictable and dynamic. Staying regulated with so many channels to process is another big channels.
Imagine how these stressors are amplified at a time of family Christmas Dinners and get togethers.
You can see how ‘eating family meals’ really is a huge sensory, social and emotional demand! We would all want to avoid the family meal set up, or demand significant changes to how it is run in our homes if we were affected in some of the areas mentioned. We need to be doing the same for our kids.
Evaluate how family meals go in your home and what the reasons for that may be?
Sensory processing challenges are intensified when we are in high stress situations – can you find ways to reduce the demands and stress around mealtimes?
Can your child give some input and have some agency in saying what works and doesn’t work for them during this time of day.
Scrapping family mealtimes as you know it isn’t a sign of failure. It could be just the signal of safety and trust your child needs from you.