You Are What You Eat
Aug. 2, 2021
Food choices are a big part of a healthy lifestyle, but more difficult to navigate than exercise. The history of food in America is a complicated and controversial topic that provides all of us with baggage that we carry for the rest of our lives. Having a disability does not exempt you from this baggage. Further complicating the issue, many individuals with autism face sensory dysfunctions that cause limited food tolerance and medications that affect metabolism causing rapid weight gain. Sensory issues can be intense enough to induce vomiting just from smelling certain foods. Introduction of a new medication can cause some individuals to pack on 40 or 50 pounds in a few short weeks leaving behind stretch marks and all the health risks associated with weight gain. All of these factors work together to make this area of Health and Wellness fraught with hazards. To combat this, Ability Matters’ starts with established regulations and moves on from there. Direct Service Professionals have to allow the individuals they serve unimpeded access to their food. The only exception is through a plan that is authored by a behavior specialist and approved by a Human Rights Committee. In these cases, each Direct Service Professional must be trained on the plan specific to that individual annually to ensure that the limitations are carried out correctly. Additionally, reviews must be done monthly to ensure ethical implementation. This is rare and only used in cases of extreme PICA or similar life-threatening situations. Outside of these situations, Direct Service Professionals must ensure that the individuals they serve have full and unobstructed access to their food. Given this setting, how do we expect to influence healthy food choices? Ability Matters has found the answer to be education and exposure. Education about healthy food choices is best done during teaching moments that present themselves throughout the day. Lectures and formal lesson plans about food are not well received by adults with or without disabilities. However, cooking lessons, opportunities to try new foods and suggestions of healthier alternatives in the moment allow us to be able to assist in healthy eating choices without being overbearing or intrusive. Adults with and without disabilities are often interested in learning to cook their favorite foods. This allows opportunities to produce their favorite foods without preservatives and with fresh ingredients. For example, individuals who like ice cream might try different recipes made with bananas or other ingredients with less fat. Travel and outings provide opportunities for individuals to try new foods that they might not be exposed to otherwise. We all tend to try new foods when we see someone else enjoying them and this can be an opening to expanding one’s palate. The more we are out in the community, the more opportunities we get for this type of exposure. Most importantly, Direct Service Professionals have to remember that healthy eating is a lifelong pursuit for all of us and there will be many missteps along the way. We could all do better, and we could all do worse with our healthy food choices. Meeting the individual where they are in the process and moving forward with encouragement one choice at a time is the only way to make progress toward better health.