How to Introduce New Foods

If you’ve got a gustatory avoider or olfactory avoider, you know how difficult it can be to get through a typical meal, let alone trying to introduce new foods. However, we know that eating a variety of good foods is the best way to stay healthy. So how do you go about getting your picky eater to try new foods?

Before you start: Make the place and time are consistent and the atmosphere is calm. Chaotic family dinners may not be the best time to try new foods, as there are so many potential distractions and sensory triggers. Once your child is calm and regulated, have him move through the following steps at a comfortable pace.

How to Introduce New Foods:

  1. Tolerate the food on the table, but not on his plate.

  2. Tolerate the food on his plate.

  3. Touch the food with utensils.

  4. Touch the food with his hands.

  5. Hold the food up close to his face and smell it.

  6. Hold the food up to his lips.

  7. Touch the food lightly with his tongue.

  8. Bite down on the food and spit it out.

  9. Bite down on the food and hold a small amount in his mouth.

  10. Finally, bite down on the food and swallow.

Patience is key, as it might take several days—or even weeks—for your child to progress through each step. Remember, you should never force or coerce your child into eating. Moving at a pace that feels comfortable to him will allow him to feel more in control and less anxious.

Other Things to Consider:

  • Stepping out of your comfort zone can be stressful for anyone, especially sensory avoiders. Build in time to let your child calm down and relax after completing one of the steps above.
  • If he’s able, have your child help with the food shopping and meal preparation. This will let him get used to the sight, smell, and feel of new foods without having to taste them.
  • Try to introduce new foods in your child’s preferred texture. For example, serve raw fruits and vegetables if your child prefers crunchy foods. If he prefers soft foods, start with applesauce, mashed cauliflower, etc.

Back To School: When Your Child’s Needs Aren’t Being Met

A few weeks ago, we talked about ways to be proactive, flexible, and collaborative when advocating for your child’s special needs at the start of the school year. Now that schools are fully back in session, parents everywhere are starting to feel the true limitations of virtual and blended learning. Many children—especially those with special needs—are struggling to manage their time, emotions, and workload outside of a traditional learning environment.

Your child might not be getting the support he needs right now, but that doesn’t mean your hands are tied. Below are some possible ways you can go about addressing gaps in your child’s accommodations. Remember, each response has pros and cons, and no solution works for everyone. You might even take different approaches at different points in your child’s life—and that’s okay! As always, only you know where you are on your journey and what feels right for your family right now.

Need someone to talk to about how to structure your child’s school day or advice on how to look for outside resources? Check out our new Caregiver Coaching service!

Option #1: Do nothing.

Though it can feel hopeless and frustrating, there are a myriad of reasons why you might not choose to pursue special accommodations for your child at this time. Maybe you feel overwhelmed by his struggles and aren’t sure where to start. Maybe you believe allowing him to have a “normal” childhood is more important than addressing some minor academic setbacks. Maybe you simply don’t have the bandwidth to juggle this new project in addition to the multitude of other responsibilities already on your plate.

Whatever the reason, finding yourself on this path doesn’t mean you don’t care about your child or that you’ve given up on him. Rather, frame this time as an opportunity to observe and learn about what makes your him tick. What kind of things make him frustrated? At what point does he give up or ask for help? What kinds of things does he love to do, and how does he excel at those things? This knowledge will be invaluable if/when you do pursue accommodations in the future.

Pros:

  • Both you and your child’s teacher will be able to observe his struggles and start collecting the data/examples you might need to advocate for him within the school.
  • You won’t be forced to spend time, money, or energy you don’t have right now.

Cons:

  • If you do nothing, nothing will change and your child will likely continue to struggle.
  • Those involved with your child on a daily basis (e.g. teachers, classmates, family members) will also continue to struggle to manage and support him.

Option #2: Demand change within the school system.

 

In some ways, this is the hardest and longest path to change, but it also yields the highest potential benefit to your child. That being said, you have to be tenacious. You need the time, energy, and resources to educate yourself about your particular district’s programs and policies. You need to have an understanding of how these programs operate during COVID—i.e., don’t expect services in week 2 if special ed programs aren’t starting until week 3. Finally, you need to come prepared with a clear description of your child’s struggles, anything you feel might contribute to his frustrations or inability to make progress, and some suggestions as to how the team, including parents, can address them in a virtual or blended setting.

Start by assuming the school is on your side, the teachers are good at their jobs, and everyone involved wants what’s best for your child. At the same time, acknowledge that COVID has been disruptive to virtually everyone and every system. Whether or not your school is able to provide him with every accommodation he needs, you will be on the path towards a better situation.

Pros:

  • Ideally, engaging the school is the first step in building a strong, coordinated team—including teachers, therapists, and psychologists—that will rally to support your child.
  • At the very least, you will be able to collect more data/examples/documentation on your child’s struggles and what the school is either unwilling or unable to address.
  • School services are provided during your child’s regular school day and generally don’t take time away from homework, extracurriculars, family time, or being with friends.

Cons:

  • It is hard. Dealing with the school system takes a lot of time, energy, purposeful observation, and creative thinking about how to solve problems—even when it feels like solving those problems should be the responsibility of teachers or case workers.

 

Option #3: Establish relationships directly with therapists, tutors, or other outside supports.

Whether you’re looking to establish entirely new supports or supplement existing ones, finding the right outside services for your child takes a lot of trial and error. In some cases, you’ll be able to provide the needed supports at home with relatively small investments. Most likely, though, you will need to spend some significant amount of time researching coaches, tutors, occupational therapists, physical therapists, psychologists, etc. Though these services can be expensive, this is the path that will have the most immediate effect on your child. 

School services are often incomplete/imperfect and might not be able to provide all the accommodations you need right now. This doesn’t necessarily mean your school is terrible or unwilling to cooperate; they simply might not be able to see things you’ve noticed in a home setting, or your child might be performing better at school—with various in-class supports—than he is at home, where schoolwork seems confusing and out of context. If you do feel the need to go outside of the school system for additional help, make sure you’re at least keeping them in the loop.

Pros:

  • You will be able to proactively, directly address your child’s issues and personally ensure that he’s getting the support and accommodations he needs to succeed.
  • You might be able to gain insight or more details about how to support your child in a day-to-day home setting, not just in an academic context.

Cons:

  • Tutors, coaches, and therapists can be costly in terms of both money and time.
  • You will become your child’s case manager. The burden of researching, scheduling, and coordinating different services now falls entirely on you, and it takes a lot of bandwidth.
  • Outside services don’t take place during your child’s school day. You will either need to occasionally remove him from class or take him away from extracurriculars, friends, etc.

Back to School: Returning to Remote Learning

While many students are now starting to return to in-person classes, many more are gearing up to get back to remote classes. Parents, having learned from the pains of last spring’s abrupt shift to e-learning, are frantically working to create the best possible at-home learning environment. Setting up at home doesn’t have to be expensive, but it should be thoughtful. When it comes to children with special needs, a little monetary investment and a lot of creative thinking can make a big difference in terms of focus and regulation.

Over the course of the summer, we’ve been taking some deep dives into pandemic parenting tips, things to think about prior to reopening, and how to better care for yourself so that you can care for your child. Need a refresher? Take a look at our previous articles on how to advocate for your child’s special needsmanaging meltdownscreating good transitions, and setting flexible goals.

Set up your space for success.

  • Create a separate, dedicated workspace in your house for each child and, if at all possible, make sure they’re far enough apart to keep them from seeing, hearing, or otherwise distracting each other while working. Let each child personalize his space—within reason—using posters, stickers, fun lighting and seating options, etc.
  • Take care to recreate any sensory-specific accommodations the school has made for your child up to this point: flexible seating and lighting, fidget options, etc. Don’t hesitate to reach out to his old teachers or special ed teachers if you need help or ideas.
  • Recreate some more general classroom elements as well. Many stores are now selling laminated wall charts featuring the alphabet, days of the week, and the weather. You can also make your own and have them laminated at your local office supply store.
  • If you’re able, get your child pumped up by going “back to school” shopping—whether online or in-store—and let him pick out some school supplies he’s excited about. Think funny notebooks, new headphones/headsets, flash drives, pens with different colored inks, and anything with a favorite character.
  • Set aside a couple hours to make sure all your child’s technology is set up and working properly. Download apps, double-check passwords, pair Bluetooth devices, etc. A little bit of time working out the kinks now will save hours of frustration later.

Focus on creating good transitions.

  • Create a weekly schedule for each child and hang it in an obvious place. Include a list of each class or subject, preferably color-coded, and a brief description of what your child should be doing in the few minutes between subjects (“Do 10 jumping jacks and get a glass of water,” or “Use the bathroom and move to the desk for math time.”)
  • Consider single-use timekeeping devices such as digital watches, timers, or alarm clocks. Whether it’s an old-school egg timer or a multi-sensory alarm clock designed for children with special needs, having a dedicated way to track time will keep your child from picking up his phone and becoming distracted throughout the day.
  • Further avoid distractions by using dedicated apps rather than bookmarks in your browser whenever possible. (Here are some ways for Mac users to turn web pages into dedicated desktop applications.)
  • Develop some strategies to help your child transition between activities that have to be done in the same space. Consider using different devices for different subjects, changing the lighting for math, facing another direction for social studies, putting some desk items away for reading, or simply hanging a sticky note with the current subject name above the desk. If you color-coded your schedule, make sure folders (both physical and digital), notebooks, and pens for each subject align to those colors.
  • Remember to keep moving! Remote learning likely means your child will be sitting in one or two spots for the majority of the day therefore won’t have as many natural breaks to get up, go outside, move up and down stairs, etc. Start the day with a walk or some exercise, and remember to build in frequent movement breaks.
  • Try to keep your child’s routine as regular as possible. Studies have shown that roughly consistent sleep and waking times help children stay focused and more regulated throughout the day. You might let him sleep later than he would for in-person classes, but the basic routine should be intact (brushing teeth, getting dressed, etc.).
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Back to School: Returning to In-Person Classes

And we’re off! For many students, the transition from August to September means masking up and returning to in-person classes. This year is sure to include all the usual jitters and so much more. Below are a couple more things to think about as your child starts to navigate a blended or in-person schedule.

Over the course of the summer, we’ve been taking some deep dives into pandemic parenting tips, things to think about prior to reopening, and how to better care for yourself so that you can care for your child. Need a refresher? Take a look at our previous articles on how to advocate for your child’s special needsmanaging meltdownscreating good transitions, and setting flexible goals.

Be collaborative.

  • Find a good mask. Get your child’s input on what kind of mask looks cool, which fits the best, ties vs. elastic bands, etc. Remember, the more she likes her mask, the more likely she is to leave it on. Consider experimenting with face shields or making your own from an old t-shirt featuring a favorite character, color, or pattern.
  • Once you’ve found the right mask, have your child practice wearing it for longer and longer periods of time, gradually working your way up to something that approximates a school day. Have her practice both talking through her own mask and listening to others talk through theirs. 
  • Talk about the importance of keeping at least six feet between your child and her classmates. Find quick, tangible ways to help her gauge and measure it in the real world. (“Six feet equals six tiles on the floor or six big steps,” or, “If you can reach out and touch your friend with your arm, you need to take some steps back.”)
  • Talk about and practice appropriate/right-sized ways for your child to ask for more space when someone around her is standing too close or not wearing a mask. Have her focus on her feelings and use “I” statements. (“I feel like I need some more distance,” or “I’m uncomfortable, so I’m going to take some steps backwards” as opposed to simply, “You need to move away.”)
  • Redundancy is the best policy. Send your child to school each day with two clearly marked bags—one full of clean masks, and one for dirty masks. Buy several clip-on bottles of hand sanitizer and stash extras in her locker, desk, cubby, and lunchbox. 

Pay attention to routine and transitions.

  • Remember, returning to school in this climate is sure to be emotionally taxing, even if your child only goes for a couple days a week. Have patience and empathy. All the normal back to school exhaustion and transition pains will be the same, if not worse.
  • Give your child some time immediately after coming home from school to relax and recenter. Don’t force her to talk about her day, run through her chores, or pick up the backpack she just dropped on the floor—at least not until she’s had time to transition back into being home on her own, in her own way.
  • On the same note, be conscious of scheduling after school activities, especially at the start of the year. Forcing too many activities—even things she typically enjoys—and too many transitions will only make her more exhausted and deregulated.
  • Try to keep your child’s routine as regular as possible, even on days when she doesn’t attend in-person classes. Studies have shown that roughly consistent sleep and waking times help children stay focused and more regulated throughout the day. You might let her sleep in an extra 30 minutes on at-home days, but the basic routine should be intact (brushing teeth, getting dressed, etc.).
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Back to School: Revisit Your IEP and 504

If you’re a special needs parent, you know how important it is to advocate for your child’s needs at the start of each school year. You probably already know that the partnership relationships you form with teachers and administrators in the fall will form the foundation of your child’s success throughout the year. Whether you’re gearing up for homeschool, distance learning, in-person classes, or some combination of the three, now is the time to take another look at your child’s IEP/504 and to ensure that your child’s entire support team-—including you—is aligned on expectations regarding academics, behavior, and teacher-parent communication.

What new accommodations need to be made to best support your child in this new environment? What old accommodations are irrelevant or impossible during COVID? How will you partner with the school staff to identify and address problems and celebrate successes? How can the school support you as a parent, and how can your parenting support the school? Below are a few tips and things to think about as you prepare for the start of the new year.

Be proactive.

  • Now more than ever, your child’s success requires a proactive stance. Don’t wait until school starts to come up with a plan, or the district might have already implemented concrete processes that are very difficult or impossible to change.
  • Create a document that lists your child’s strengths and weaknesses, how these have impacted her academic performance in the past (both at home and at school), and how you predict they will impact her performance in her new learning environment. Include any current accommodations, and re-assess the needs they are addressing in light of COVID. Be as specific and concrete as possible. The school’s staff should have already read the existing documentation, but that’s not always the case—think of this as a cheat sheet to get everyone back up to speed.
  • Schedule a pre-school meeting with your IEP/504 team, and don’t be afraid to track them down via email or phone if you’re told they’re not available until school starts. Talk openly about your expectations, questions, and concerns. You don’t need to walk into—or out of—the meeting with all the answers. However, it is important that.everyone on your child’s team is on the same page and following the same game-plan, even when that means acknowledging that some concerns remain unaddressed and that some answers will unfold over time.
  • Develop a good communication plan. As the parent, you should be forewarned of any changes to your child’s schedule, curriculum, or physical surroundings. Set up frequent check-ins with her teacher and IEP/504 team and talk about the best way to keep you informed so that you can better prepare and socialize these changes at home.
  • If your child is physically returning to school, request a tour of the building before her first day so you can start prepping her. Pay attention to changes in the classroom and the location of bathrooms. If possible, have her teacher accompany you on the tour.

 

Be flexible.

  • Accept that any existing plans and accommodations will probably need to change—in fact the whole idea of “success” or “optimal performance” might need to change, especially for special needs children. You and/or your child’s teachers may not be able to evaluate certain things remotely, like how well she’s able to focus in class or on Zoom, so be willing to exchange observations and insights with school staff and to adjust your goals as needed.
  • Schedule frequent check-ins with your child’s teacher to discuss what’s working and what needs to change. Make sure to give each plan of action enough time to tell if it’s truly working, and agree on what the markers of success are and what will cause the plan to shift.  (“We are agreeing now that we will all start the year by trying Plan A. If my daughter meets this Goal by this Date, then we will all continue Plan A. If not, then within one week we will all switch to try Plan B.”)
  • Consider novel solutions to old problems. There may be cases in which your school simply can’t support your child to the same, pre-COVID level. Be open to bringing in outside coaches or tutors, and don’t hesitate to reach out to other parents for advice. (Need some advice? Check out our new caregiver coaching service!)
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Be collaborative.

  • Remember, you are part of the educational team now—you’ve spent a lot of valuable time with your child in quarantine, and you have unique insight into her that no one else has. You have a voice and a vote in these decisions.
  • Also remember that your special relationship with your child means that your child may respond differently to teachers and peers than to parents and siblings—for better or for worse! This is normal, especially after everyone in your household has all been through an intense spring and summer together. Be emotionally prepared to observe these differences in behavior, and try not to take them personally. Acknowledge what you observe, share it with the team, and maintain your focus on identifying your child’s needs and on partnering effectively with the school to ensure those needs are met.
  • Don’t shy away from sharing your experiences and talking to your team about any specific strategies or solutions that have worked for you—and what hasn’t worked. At the same time, be honest when you don’t have an answer. You don’t always have to.
  • Keep in mind that districts and teachers are struggling with how to manage COVID, too. Give them the benefit of the doubt and trust that they all care about your child’s success and doing their jobs well.
  • That being said, teachers and admins are definitely overwhelmed. Approach things with a spirit of collaboration, but remember things will slip through the cracks and you will have to be tenacious.

Getting Your Family Ready for Reopening

“This [Covid] feels like having a newborn: You don’t know anything, you have to do everything, but so much feels out of your control. Everything is scary. As soon as you figure something out, it changes. There’s a lot of pressure and judgement. I’m afraid I’m doing it wrong.”

As we enter the fourth month of lockdown, there’s a lot of excited talk about finally “opening up” and getting back to a “new normal.” Some states are opening businesses and public spaces quickly, while others are opening in slow, deliberate phases. There is no single roadmap for this, no one set of guidelines, and so many of us still feel confused, exhausted, and out of control in ways we might not have felt since we first became parents. 

But remember, having a newborn allowed you to develop some amazing strengths as a parent: you were able to live in the moment, adapt quickly to new situations, prioritize (sometimes ruthlessly), and accept what you could not control. Reconnect with those strengths and lean into them as the world starts to reopen. With a little planning and a lot of communication, your family can make this transition in a way that feels thoughtful and safe for everyone.

Things to consider:

  • Telehealth availability is high, but so is the demand. Start making appointments—both virtual and in-person—for healthcare, therapy, and other family services now, even if the actual appointment is a ways off.
  • Some places may be quieter or less crowded than usual. However, keep in mind that social distancing and more thorough cleaning procedures might mean some things take a lot longer than usual, and some areas may be restricted. Don’t hesitate to call ahead and let providers know about your child’s particular needs.

 

Talk about it.

  • Learn how to read your child and understand to what level he needs the situation explained to him. Be attentive to both verbal and nonverbal communication about his level of understanding and his feelings about what he’s hearing (this could be vastly different for every child). Put things in direct, black and white terms as much as possible.
  • A plan is the best antidote for anxiety, so talk to your child about what to expect when you leave your house. Prepare him for how people might look (masks and gloves) and how people might behave (anxious or standoffish). Make sure he knows what’s expected of him in regards to distancing, hand washing, and mask wearing.
  • Stress the importance of respecting others’ choices in regards to social distancing. For example, Grandma’s not crazy for continuing to quarantine—she’s older and therefore higher risk, plus she might have other risk factors that lead her to be more cautious or anxious. On the other hand, you might know someone who has to return to work or is choosing to engage in more social activity than your family’s comfortable with. This is a situation that makes people emotional and defensive, and it’s not helpful to argue with others or be confrontational.
  • Talk to your family about how to manage transitions—into summer, into reopening, etc. Develop good “transition habits” as a family. All the rules of transitions apply: stay regulated, ease yourself into it, try not to force too many “new” things at once. (More on this next week!)

Take it slow.

  • Choose your family’s “safe” social circle and expand it slowly. Think of it like concentric rings, with the core/innermost circle being your household. The next innermost ring might include grandparents or your next door neighbors, and the ring beyond that might include cousins, friends, or coworkers. Make sure everyone in each ring agrees to the same “rules” about social distancing. Be explicit with your child about how you choose the members of your circle and what the rules are.
  • When you’re ready to start going out, apply this same idea to stores, offices, and establishments. In this instance, the innermost circle would be grocery stores, doctors, and other truly essential businesses. The second ring might be department stores and barbershops, and the ring beyond that might be restaurants.
  • Go on the first few outings alone if possible. This will let you get a lay of the land, acclimate yourself to the new way of doing things, and be better prepared to set your child’s expectations. Don’t be embarrassed to reach out to friends, neighbors, or the establishment itself and ask what to expect.
  • Check in frequently when you’re out with your child, and have an exit plan ready in case he needs a break or is misbehaving. If he does start to become frightened or overwhelmed, remind him you can both leave right away, with no consequences or punishment for him, and try again later. 

Teaching Your Sensory-Sensitive Child to Ride a Bike

Spring has sprung, and it’s time to break out the bikes! Learning to ride a bike is a right of passage for many children, and it’s a skill they can take with them their entire lives.

While SPD and other sensory issues present some unique challenges, you can help your child feel safe and confident by breaking the process up into small, simple steps and allowing him to go at his own pace. Below is a method we’ve found successful with our own children–feel free to use it as a starting point and modify as needed.

Above all, stay positive and remember to celebrate the small victories. Good luck!

Sensory Challenges

The Issue: Sensory Overload

Becoming irritated or overwhelmed by physical sensations like the wind blowing in his face, uncomfortable safety gear, or the sight of objects whizzing by quickly

What to Do

Let your child pick out his own helmet and pads and add extra cloth or padding if needed. Introduce new textures and sensations slowly.

The Issue: Vestibular Processing

Problems with balance, motion, or spatial orientation, such as feeling out of control, unsteady, or too far away from the ground

What to Do

Consider getting a tricycle, scooter, or balance bike first. Practice balancing and moving with speed before making the leap to a regular bike.

The Issue: Motor-Based Problems

Difficulties maintaining stamina, determining the order in which to make certain movements, or coordinating different muscle groups

What to Do

Break new skills down into small, simple steps and use repetition to reinforce new concepts. Physically guide your child through the process.

The Issue: Sensory Discrimination

Inability to properly gauge the distance between objects, the different shapes of street signs, or how much force is being used to pedal or turn

What to Do

Practice telling the difference between the shapes of two signs, the distance between two toys, or whether  he’s going fast or slow. Make it a game and have him try to “trick” you.

The Issue: Fear

Meltdowns, anxiety, or refusal to practice caused by any of the above issues

What to Do

Be supportive and patient. Make sure your child is regulated before you begin, and allow him to go at his own pace.

Note

Learning to Ride

  1. Have your child sit on the bike and stand directly in front of him so he can see everything you’re doing and knows you’re in control. Slowly move the handlebars left to right, back and forth, so he can both see and feel the movement.
  2. Have him practice getting on and off the bike while you continue to hold it steady.
  3. Slightly tilt the bike in either direction, as if it’s going to fall, and have him practice “catching” himself by leaning and putting his foot down on the correct side.
  4. Continue to hold the handlebars and have him practice getting on and off as you tilt. Make sure to practice on both sides until he’s comfortable.
  5. Stand behind the bike and repeat step #3 using the balance bar. When he’s comfortable with his footing, start tipping the bike farther–just enough so that he must catch himself.
  6. Use the balance bar to push the bike slowly forward. Have him practice steering while you keep the bike upright and steady. Move on to pedaling and braking when he’s mastered steering.
  7. Continue to hold on, but encourage him to go faster. Make a game of seeing if he can “make Mommy/Daddy run.” Let him be completely in control of speed and stopping. 
  8. Tell him you can let go whenever he’s ready–and when he tells you to let go, do it! Practice pedaling and stopping over and over until he doesn’t fall and can confidently control the bike on his own.
  9. Start working on turns. Place cones or toys in a parking lot or other open space and have him weave around and through them. Focus on slowing down and making wide swings around objects, and move the objects closer together as he gets comfortable.

Have another suggestion? Let us know in the comments!

E-Learning Resources for Children of All Ages

At Twenty-One Senses, our mission has always been to help families with sensory issues navigate typical childhood events, play spaces, and activities. However, we recognize the world is quickly changing and all families, not just those with special needs, are adjusting to a new way of life.

To better support social distancing measures intended to curb the spread of COVID-19, we will be pausing our regular programming to focus on e-learning resources for children of all ages and abilities. We’ll be adding to the list regularly, so check back often. Please share it on social media or with anyone you think might find it useful. Finally, let us know if you’ve found a great resource we should include.

We believe in the power of community, cooperation, and positivity in the face of adversity. While there are certainly challenges ahead, we can all use this moment to pause and reflect on the things that matter most: our families and our communities. 

Take care of yourselves and each other.