Helping Children with Autism Learn to Eat with Tom Caffrey

Tom Caffrey. Used with Permission

Tom Caffrey. Used with Permission

Tom Caffrey, M.Ed, BCBA, international trainer and speaker and founder and director of VBN Training, has created a series of video training modules to help parents and professionals overcome the daily behavioral challenges children with autism and their families face. As a parent of a child with autism, Caffrey understands these challenges firsthand.

This is the second in a pair of two articles about Caffrey’s video training modules. This article reviews « Getting Kids to Eat ». The first article reviewed Caffrey’s training module « Overcoming Irrational Fears ».

In this training module, « Getting Kids to Eat », the viewer follows a young boy who only ate McDonald’s chicken nuggets and gummy candies for two years before starting a feeding program at school created and supervised by Caffrey. The videos show him progress to eating a wide variety of foods willingly and happily.

In the training module, Caffrey explains why many children with autism become picky eaters. He teaches how to identify three guidelines for selecting food targets in a feeding program. Then, he explains how to implement the necessary steps to increase both the amount and variety of food a child with autism will eat.

« Selective eating » in children with autism may refer to children who only eat certain foods (even if the foods they eat are nutritious), refusal to eat a nutritionally adequate diet, or absolute refusal to eat certain foods or food group. Selective eaters remain selective eaters due to two main contributing factors : accidental reinforcement and / or sensory issues (the child may be reluctant to eat foods that have a particular look, smell, taste, or texture). Caffrey explains how the child’s « learning pattern » with food influences what he will eat. For example, the child’s refusal to eat something may lead the parent to present a more desirable food to the child. This most likely leads to the child refusing to eat the initial food again the next time it is presented in order to receive the second, more desirable, food.

Children with autism tend to eat foods that fit into one of the following four food categories : sweet, salty, sour, or bitter. Some child insist on eating foods that are all the same color. Others may refuse to eat foods of one color.

When starting a feeding program, it is essential to get medical clearance (to verify there are no medical conditions keeping the child from eating) and to obtain a list of all current and past foods eaten in order to know where to start. Initial food targets will be foods that the child has eaten willingly in the past three months and that have what Caffrey calls « a good sensory fit » meaning they have the taste and texture your child currently enjoys. The main goal, according to Caffrey, is to « get your child to eat new foods ».

In order to teach the child to enjoy new foods, it will be necessary to make sure your child is hungry at the time the new food is presented, that you gradually fade in the amount of food to be eaten and that a promised reward or reinforcer is presented once the child has eaten the new food. Caffrey shows the boy completing such steps as holding a piece of the new food to his cheek or lips in gradual steps before he is expected to actually eat the food.

Here is one testimonial from a teacher and mother of a special needs child from Jackson, NJ. Jennifer F. Special Education Teacher says:

“I credit Tom with being the catalyst for change in my classroom, or as I like to say, he presented me with my missing piece. A few years after attending Tom’s workshop, I had a son. At age two, he was diagnosed with autism. Never in my life have I been so thankful for knowledge that someone imparted on me. All of the procedures that I initially learned from Tom and implemented in my classroom with great success were used in my own home with the same amazing outcome!

I recommend Tom’s DVD training series to parents, teachers or anyone working with students with developmental disabilities, especially autism.”

More information about Caffrey’s video training modules can be found on his web site: www.tomcaffrey.com.