Here's how I pictured family dinner with my husband and three kids: Everyone is at the table, enjoying steak and fries while taking turns talking about the highlights from their day.
In reality, dinner is more of a workout than a time to relax over conversation. In reality, my husband and I have spent more dinners than I can count chasing our two autistic kids (my son and younger daughter), sensory seekers who like to launch themselves out of their seats at every opportunity. In reality, this ideal image doesn't fit our family dynamic at all.
But I'm learning that that's okay — with a little help from a TV and a therapist or two.
What Dinner Looks Like with Two Autistic Kids
"Where's Nick?" I asked my older daughter one night. I had lost track of him when I turned my head a few minutes to cut some strawberries.
"He's in the cabinet," she responded. I opened it to find him hiding with the pots and pans.
Meanwhile, my younger daughter was running laps around the living room.
This is a typical dinner scene at my house. The food sits on the table, but my kids don't have the attention span to eat it.
I also struggle to get them to take the dietary supplements they need to make up for picky eating habits and food restrictions (even for my older daughter who has autistic traits, but isn't diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder).
"I need to use the potty," screamed my older daughter one day. She jumped out of her seat at the dinner table and began running toward the bathroom. Acting on a hunch, my husband followed her. When he came back to the kitchen, he was holding an orange gumdrop vitamin with a tissue wrapped around it.
Another night, he found a probiotic pill behind the kitchen trash can. Apparently, she had missed the target.
I can relate. I'm autistic and a picky eater, too. When I was a kid, I refused to eat most vegetables. My parents wouldn't let me leave the dinner table until I ate them, so if the family dog wasn't available to help out, I would use a drink to swallow whole pieces of broccoli smothered in cheddar cheese. (I still don't eat many vegetables, including broccoli.)
How TV and a Therapist or Two Helps My Austistic Kids Eat Dinner
I've chosen to take a different approach with my kids by introducing a TV into our kitchen and by inviting applied behavior analysis therapists into our living room.
I know for many families television at the dinner table is taboo, and having a therapist (or two) around might not be how I originally pictured family dinners. But our dinner dynamic has changed dramatically — for the better — since we made these changes.
One night, my three preschoolers kneeled on their chairs singing "True Colors" between bites of grilled chicken and laughing while watching Trolls.
When they stopped eating, I paused the movie. They resumed crunching their carrots and apple slices without a word. When they slouched so low they were practically hanging off of their chairs, I paused the TV again. They repositioned themselves and looked at me expectantly. I didn't immediately play the movie this time. I had their undivided attention.
"How was school today?" I asked. When I was satisfied with the response, I pushed play.
Meanwhile, my daughter's applied behavior analysis therapists lurk in the living room, taking notes on their iPads when meals run smoothly. But they're ready to swoop into the kitchen as needed using incentives like TV time, stickers, or even candy for after dinner. These rewards are, it turns out, what my daughter needs to sit nicely, try new foods, and take her vitamins.
One night, we invited my younger daughter's favorite therapist, who is like part of our family, to join us for dinner. My husband prepared an elaborate turkey dinner with gravy and most of the fixings we normally prepare on Thanksgiving. My daughter asked more questions than she has asked any other guests we've had at our dinner table: "Are you eating dinner with us?" "Do you like turkey?" "I don't like mashed potatoes. Do you?"
My son recently started his own applied behavior analysis therapy, so we often have two therapists in our home at the same time about five or six times a week. Now, I need to seriously consider getting a bigger dinner table, which would be well worth the investment.
This is what works for my family. I've even been known to join my kids by dancing and singing along to "Can't Stop the Feeling" from my dinner chair.