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.
Deborah's top tips for happy mealtimes
1. Be patient
"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."
2. Invest in a funky child-sized apron
"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."
3. Encourage your child to help lay the table
"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'."
4. Use heavy cutlery and solid crockery
"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.
5. Take the time to eat with your child
"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."
6. Keep a standalone mirror and wet cloth handy
"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."
7. Encourage your child to clear their place
"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.
Specialist eating and drinking equipment
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, recommends a number of helpful aids to eating that parents of children with learning disabilities may find useful for their child.
- Different shaped cups, with one or two handles, of different weights, materials, transparencies and designs. The cups should be designed not to shatter or break if they are bitten.
- A transparent cup can be helpful when helping someone to drink, because you can see how much liquid they're taking.
- Cutlery of differing shapes, sizes, depths and materials. Again, the cutlery shouldn't shatter if it is bitten. Solid plastic cutlery or plastic-coated metal might be better for people who have a bite reflex when cutlery is placed in their mouth. Shorter-handled cutlery is easier to manage, and hand grips or irregularly shaped handles may help someone in using a utensil.
- Plates and bowls that do not slip, have higher sides to prevent spillage, or are angled to make access to food easier.
- Insulated crockery that keeps food hot if mealtimes are lengthy.
- Non-slip mats that support crockery.
- Straws, which can help those with a weaker suck and can have different widths.
- Feeding systems that deliver food to the diner's mouth through, for example, a rotating plate and a mechanical or electronically controlled spoon. Some systems are powered, others are hand- or foot-operated.
For more information and details of suppliers, read this factsheet from the Disabled Living Foundation.