It may seem counterintuitive to have a child learning to feed themselves play with food. However, if a child experiences sensory issues involving feeding, playing with food can be a highly effective strategy. If a child is enrolled in a therapeutic preschool program, they may receive feeding therapy as a part of their daily routine in the classroom, particularly if they have autism spectrum disorder (ASD) or sensory processing disorder. There are many therapeutic benefits of having a child with sensory issues play with their food, and if this strategy is successful in school, parents can also use this strategy at home.
Many therapeutic preschool programs have occupational therapists (OT) and speech-language pathologists (SLP) directly involved in the classroom, so if a child shows sensory issues they may receive feeding therapy one-on-one from an OT or SLP, perhaps during snack time.
If a child with autism or sensory processing disorder experiences aversions to certain smells and textures, playing with food before actually attempting to eat it can make the food less scary for the child. Here are a few ways that playing with food can help children in a therapeutic preschool class who experience sensory issues:
Food can be fun: If children are looking at food as a game, rather than something being forced upon them, they are likely to be more receptive to new foods. Presenting food in a less stressful environment may help children to become more relaxed and less anxious. A therapeutic preschool teacher can also try cutting the food into hearts or other shapes to make it look more fun.
Tactile issues: For children with tactile sensory issues, certain food textures can present major problems with feeding. Commonly, “squishy” foods, such as yogurt or oatmeal, can be particularly difficult for children with sensory issues. Using these foods as finger paint can actually be a helpful way to expose a child to the texture in a non-threatening way. After becoming more comfortable with the texture in finger painting, their OT or SLP in the therapeutic preschool program may work on transitioning to actually tasting it.
Shifting perspective: If you are forcing a child to eat foods that trigger their sensory issues, they will likely respond negatively to that food in the future. However, if you present the food as a game instead, they may begin to respond in a more positive way to that food.
While sensory issues with food will not dissipate overnight, the instructors and therapists in a therapeutic preschool program can work consistently with the child to improve their sensory experience with feeding. If a child who is enrolled in a therapeutic preschool program is still experiencing difficulty with feeding themselves, even after consistent feeding therapy in their school program, additional occupational therapy might be beneficial.
Could a therapeutic preschool program in Chicago benefit your child? Contact CST Academy at 773-620-7800 to learn more about our program that incorporates feeding therapy, occupational therapy, ABA therapy, and speech therapy.