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Lunch Time Issues for the Child with Autism

With the start of this new school year the emphasis in many print magazines focused on the variety of ideas for a child's lunch. I even clipped a few pages from magazines that showed how to make peanut butter and jelly sandwiches with a twist and how to pack a healthy lunch.

The plastic containers on the market these days have many compartments of varying size for all sorts of delicacies. My children have Arctic Zone Bags that house their lunches with the reusable ice substitute that keeps everything cold. I place plastic spoons for the pudding and yogurt and store the sandwich in the Rubbermaid take-alongs.

My kids are at school for 6 1/2 hours, yet they only get 20 minutes to eat a meal at midday. My son Nicholas has many times left food inside his lunch bag because his class went to the lunchroom late, which left him no time to finish his meal.

I would rather Nicholas have milk each day with his lunch, but that would cost $1.00 just to get the milk, so he has a 100% fruit juice box instead. I cannot find any grocery store that sells the small pint cartons of milk like they get at the school. Last week I paid ninety cents for a carton of milk from Burger King, but cannot afford to do that on a regular basis.

Sometimes Nicholas likes to get the chicken nuggets or the hamburger at school, but in previous years by the time his class would get to the cafeteria these items would be gone with the alternative something he did not like. Now that he is in the fourth grade he goes to lunch first. This does seem backwards to me with the older grades having the first lunch and lower grades having the second lunch.

When Matthew was still attending the same school I would head into the cafeteria after taking him to his classroom and ask the head of the cafeteria to hold the hamburger or chicken nuggets for Nicholas. One time a few years ago the weather changed suddenly so I headed over to the school to bring a shirt for Nicholas. Matthew always has a spare change of clothes in his classroom for emergency purposes. I decided to bring a lunchable for Nicholas in case his favorite meal was not available.

I lucked out that he was in the cafeteria at the exact time I was there, but as I opened the door what I saw disturbed me. Nicholas had his head down on the table and seemed to be crying. It turned out that another student had taken his hamburger and neither of the lunchroom aides noticed or did anything about this. He was able to change his shirt and finish his lunch without anyone disturbing him.

What happens at the school is that the children who bring their lunch can sit down and not wait in the line with those buying their lunch. The students have cards that need to be scanned when they get their lunch. The majority of students get their meals for free and those that are above income requirements prepay to the cafeteria manager. Parents usually prepay before school or the money is given to student to pay at lunch.

When children get in trouble for whatever reason they have to eat lunch in the hallway outside the office and not participate in recess. There were times last year that Nicholas would go to the library instead of recess after lunch. This started as a result of the parent/teacher conference where I questioned why third grade did not go to the library. The teacher informed Nicholas he could go at recess in the morning or after lunch.

Soon after that meeting Nicholas started going to the library and other students followed suit. The teacher implemented going to the library and I really think that helped with the morale of the classroom.

Quite often I would notice children wearing layered clothing on days that were colder, but turned warmer by lunchtime. Neither of my children can tolerate layered clothing, so I would pack a shirt in Matthew's backpack for his aide to change him into and Nicholas would change into a shirt after lunch.

Nicholas would end up losing his original shirt on the playground or in the classroom. One teacher made him wear his shirt around his waist, which worked out well. On days when Matthew's aide was out no one would think to have his shirt changed. Therefore on days that was 75-85 degrees I would come to the school and find him still in long sleeves.

This really disturbs me because I can see immediately that Matthew is uncomfortable, yet because he is nonverbal cannot express to those in his classroom that he is warm or overheated.

I also find it bothersome that his plastic containers are not fully closed when placed in his backpack, leaving crumbs throughout his backpack. I put a container of soymilk in his lunch bag with a special cup he can drink out of inside the backpack. One day last week the cup was placed inside his backpack with soymilk still inside. This caused a mess inside the one section of his backpack. There are garbage cans in the cafeteria and the classrooms. There is also a sink in the classroom where this could be dumped before hanging the backpack in the closet.

At the Elementary School Nicholas attends the cafeteria is actually the Auditorium. The garbage cans are placed outside at a corner of the playground. This area is near the special education classroom that Matthew attended. There are pigeons flying around this area all the time. Both my children were scared to be around this area and it was quite uncomfortable for me to walk past. I have even noticed pigeons and birds inside the auditorium in the morning when breakfast is being served.

At Matthew's school there is a section that is contained outdoors with benches and tables for breakfast and lunch. There are pigeons all over the place that we need to dodge from when entering in the morning. The water fountains at both schools are disgusting looking with caked on dirt. I feel they should have paper towel dispensers nearby so that kids could grab one before touching those knobs to turn the water on.

I used to make the microwave popcorn in the morning so Matthew would have it at lunchtime. This gave him time to eat instead of waiting for his aide to bring his food back to him. Now he likes tomato soup and chicken nuggets, but I am not sure how we can implement these items for lunch and give Matthew enough time to consume them and have time for recess, which he also needs to break up his day, especially since the special education students do not play on the playground Before the Bell rings.

It is also important to note that when birthdays are celebrated parents bring in soda for the class. Last year the last day of school coincided with Matthew's birthday so I went to Burger King and purchased several orders of french fries and brought along Gatorade.

The classroom had a stock of soda, which is what all the students except my children consumed. I take issue with so much soda being on the campus from the school employees and parents bringing items for birthday parties. If your household has a policy about soda it is imperative that you mention this to the teacher at the start of the school year, otherwise your child might have soda for the first time in their classroom. This happened with Nicholas a few years ago when a parent brought it inside the classroom with a cake.

An example of a recommended lunch from the September 2005 issue of Redbook -

peanut butter and jelly on cinnamon raisin bread
terra stix
mozarella string cheese
sliced oranges

There is no way that Nicholas would have time to eat all four of these items, let along two of them in the 20 minute time period he has for lunch. Plus this lunch did not have any recommended drinks to consume during this lunch period.

Nicholas gets so overheated during recess that when I pick him up almost two hours later his hair is still wet and matted to his head. This does not seem to faze him one bit, but I find it an issue that no one is watching over him and letting him know to slow down. After the incident a few years ago in the lunchroom I headed to the office and requested someone from the office to watch over him. That was done for a year before the school switched from year round to traditional school schedule. This resulted in some school cuts in personnel.

I drop Nicholas off close to bell time in the morning so he is not left alone to find someone to talk to. It was much easier to keep my eye on him when Matthew attended the same school. It was sad to watch Nicholas walk around the playground unable to approach anyone to strike up a conversation. He would bring issues of Zoobooks to school and show them to classmates. I did observe though that he was not aware when students were not paying attention to him.

There was a time he was collecting the Yu-gi-Oh! cards and carried them to school like other kids. One classmate would constantly steal cards from his backpack in the morning and later in the classroom. We gave the whole collection away on Craigslist.

I would like to see the lunch time expanded to a full thirty minutes at schools. This would allow the children to digest their food and not rush through an important meal time. The pace for learning in schools is fast, yet we all need to slow down and take our time to enjoy the food we are consuming.

When I was on jury duty the court dismissed everyone for a full 90 minute lunch, so why is it that children are only getting 20 minutes? They are the ones who are growing and developing, yet food is not being finished and much is wasted due to being late and not having enough time to consume their food in a proper manner.

We also need to take into account the children that are bused into school that arrive late for breakfast, which then rushes another mealtime, if they are even offered this or it is available at the late time. I noticed quite often classmates in Matthew's special education class at his old school arriving late. An aide would have to get into the cafeteria to get their breakfasts and they would eat them in the classroom.

At Matthew's school they have arrived in time for breakfast. By the time we get there most are finished with their breakfasts. But there are children on the Autism Spectrum that are not being watched over efficiently to ensure they are eating their breakfast. This is especially true for those that do not have aides and most of the time food is tossed out without eating. This could be due to the child sitting there playing or just zoning out and no one assisting in the meal process. I think classroom aides and assistants need specific training from qualified professionals in how to assist the child on the Autism Spectrum and learn what issues they have regarding eating and free time.

The OT from the Feeding Therapy has done some school visits over the years to help facilitate eating. This was done on two occasions at his previous school to help them know how his eating habits had changed.

The Dietitian expressed an interest to do a school visit to check the lunchtime routine so we can figure out why Matthew has stopped eating his yogurt, pudding and yogurt drink. He used to have one of them at the start of the morning recess and was consuming them during summer camp.

In the last month another issue has come up pertaining to the actual lunch boxes children utilize - LEAD. Read the Press Release from the Center for Environmental Health. Leadcheck.com sells kits for $5.00.

***UPDATE*** - National School Lunch Week is October 10 - 14th

Here is a sampling of the school lunch menu with LAUSD

Beef Chalupa or Meatloaf with Gravy, Dinner Roll, Fresh Fruit, pineapple spears

Beef w/Salsa Burrito or Corn Dog, carrot package, super sherbert, jr.

deep dish pepperoni pizza or peanut butter & jelly pocket, fresh apple, lemon juice bar

Toasted cheese sandwich or corn dog, carrot package, halloween juice bar

Macaroni & Cheese or Beef Terriyaki Dippers, Dinner roll, mixed green salad, pearsauce

At this time last year Arroyo Elementary School in South Pasadena, CA banned peanut products from their campus. This included bringing in a sandwich from home. My kids attend their summer autism camp in South Pasadena, on the campus of a Catholic school.

The Washington Post article

The Peanut Allergy Answer Book is available at Amazon


Brown Bag and Lunch Box Ideas

What school children around the world have for lunch

School Lunches are no Picnic


Just Take A Bite Book Review

Very Best Kids Nestle Free Magazine


What happens Before the Bell Rings. Consider Classroom Modifications for the Autistic StudentSome students need a Behavior Support Plan

Preparing for A Field Trip

Attending Your First IEP Meeting

Autism Spectrum Disorders Site @ BellaOnline
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This content was written by Bonnie Sayers. If you wish to use this content in any manner, you need written permission. Contact Bonnie Sayers for details.



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