Andrew is an average sized, ordinary second grader at Texas Christian Academy. Every day this black haired, brown eyed student eats his lunch in his ordinary second grade classroom, along with all his peers: the rest of his class. Amid the white boards and markers, phonics charts, math posters, alphabet, and autumn art projects, he leaves the realm of ordinary as he opens his lunch box or purchases his lunch from the school snack shop.
As a teacher in elementary and junior high classes for the last 15 years, observing students in the process of eating their lunch has always been a favorite past time of mine. There has never been a formal lunch room at our private school so students have always used their desks as lunch tables when the lunch bell rings. Day in and day out as I have eaten my own lunch at my desk, I have been obliged to monitor their lunches. Lunch time has provided me with some of the most interesting and entertaining parts of my day.
Typical student lunch behavior and eating patterns have varied little through the years—until this year. Students have long been known to swallow their food whole, cramming a complete sandwich into their mouths to the point that their cheeks bulge and their jaws strain at the task of containing the food and swallowing it in a half-chewed state. Some chew without missing a word of their conversation and give new definition to the words “sea food” for lunch. Other students barely nibble at a few parts of their lunch and throw most of it into the trash can. “I can’t eat any more, Mrs. Little! I’m too full,” are their usual plaintive remarks as they seek permission to toss their lunches. And, of course, there are always the few who eat at a very leisurely pace, enjoying the happy camaraderie around the classroom, and are never finished and ready to clean up at the end of lunch. Leslie, my very amiable, energetic, twenty-year-old daughter spent most of her youth having lunch at her desk. “You can only eat so many peanut butter sandwiches before the thought of another sandwich makes you sick! That’s why I loved Lunchables®,” she shared with me not long ago.
Andrew is unique; he does not belong to the average eaters mentioned above. He enters into a different world when the lunch bell rings, a secret world of sensory experiences of the highest order. Arranging his many food items in a line across his desk, he begins to flit like a butterfly from flower to flower, sampling the exquisite nectar from each dish for just a moment before flying off again to the next as if startled away by an unknown danger. He does not visit with his classmates in the desks near him, nor does he participate in the happy bustle of children moving around the room as they throw away trash or visit at a friend’s desk. No, with complete attention and satisfaction, he only focuses on his lunch, the center of his universe for 20 minutes.
Andrew treats his fork and spoon as if they are delicate instruments, lightly and deftly using them to deliver large bites of food to his mouth. A bite is not placed neatly into his mouth but is brought to his cheeks, lips, and the front of his tongue, where it lingers only for an instant before being replaced by the next treat. Each oversized spoonful paints his face with an additional food color as he quickly bends his head down into each bite, up and down, like a bobbing-headed toy perched on the dashboard of a moving car.
When one of his assortments of food includes a sandwich, fingers carefully and delicately grasp only the wrapper, never the sandwich itself, as if preserving a sterile operating theatre. With such a gentle force, he urgently squishes the sandwich into his face, where part is stuffed into his mouth, barely chewed, and quickly swallowed because his focus is already on the next dish. Cramming, smearing, splashing, dripping, and quickly chewing, he works back and forth over his dishes, hovering and intent on each and every bite, rarely dipping into any dish for more than one taste, always moving on to the next delight.
Watching his obvious enjoyment every day makes it difficult for me to remember the parents whose hearts’ desires are that their child would be an ordinary eater of food. As a society, we warn children not to take too big of a bite and to chew their food completely before swallowing. We caution them not to run around or laugh riotously with food in their mouths in order to prevent them from choking. And other than to ask them not to chew with their mouths open, we trust them to feed themselves. But is this always possible?
“About 5-10% of children have enough problems with sensory integration to cause them to be slow learners, have specific learning disabilities, or have behavioral problems”—some to the extent that they have a very difficult time learning to do what we take for granted everyday: eat. Sensory integration problems (problems in “the way in which the brain sorts out and organizes, for our use, the many sensations which we receive,”) can cause babies and young people to become overwhelmed with sensations from external and internal stimuli. Not being able to cope, the children can not eat in a normal fashion. Other children are so unresponsive to oral stimuli that the ability to nurse from a bottle is very difficult or impossible for them.
New stimulating aides and techniques have been developed for therapeutic use with sensory integration problems. Simple NUK® oral massagers are made to stimulate the gums of babies. Chewy Tubes®, “great non-food, non-babyish alternatives” that look like T-shaped toys, are made for children and adults who need oral-sensory input (Sensory Comfort). I could not help but think of my student Andrew as I read about one of the many therapeutic techniques being currently used. Cloths of different textures (like satin, velvet, etc.) are rubbed around the children’s faces and mouths to help them tolerate sensations without becoming over stimulated and overwhelmed. Andrew so loved the textures of his food and did his own “rubbing” all around his face every day.
Multi-Sensory Rooms, Occupational Therapy Centers for children, Hemi-Sync sound treatments, and at-home stimulation aids and techniques are some of the ways these sensory challenged kids are being helped and nurtured. Their parents’ hopes and dreams are that their child will also become part of an ordinary lunch time in an ordinary class—just like mine.