Guest Post, Heather: Feeding the “Picky” Cavekid – Paleo with Sensory Processing Disorder

Wednesdays are our Guest Blogger Series day where we feature Paleo and real-food bloggers. We hope you enjoy the new view points and unique content; if so, we encourage you to show these guest bloggers your support by visiting their blog and social media links at the end of this post!

This week we’re visited by Heather of Tip Toeing Odessa. She writes a terrific blog where you can find posts on topics that range from parenting and medical mission work to fermentation and paleo cooking. Today Heather shares tips on how she integrated a paleo diet into her family, and more specifically how she helped her son adapt to the change in tastes and textures.


When I found out I was to become a first-time Mom, I started dreaming about our new life as a family. I just knew my child was going to be easy, love to try new things, a great traveler and just be simply amazing. Life sort of veered us off our perceived course and down a path of parenting a child with special needs. Not better, not worse, just different. It took time to accept the new emotions that come with the diagnosis and to realize that my kid may not be an easy traveler or a lover of new things but he is a truly, TRULY amazing being and in turn has helped me become person that I never imagine I could be.

Seth was diagnosed with autism at 2.5 years old. He was non-verbal, would stim for 5+ hrs a day and lived in perpetual meltdown mode. To abbreviate this story, when we were given the diagnosis of autism it crushed me. All the cool idiosyncrasies that I loved about my son, like recreating constellations in acorns, were actually blaring signs of autism I had missed.


Fast forward to us spending the next 5 years trying almost every recommended “autism fix” known to man from the GF/CF diet, Feingold diet, GAPS diet, Raw diet, Defeat Autism Now doctors, chiropractic care, Chinese Medicine, Anat Beniel Method, supplements and along with the classic therapies like speech, occupational therapy, Early Intervention and Applied Behavioral Analysis. We learned and gained so much from every one of these but nothing has had as much impact on Seth’s well-being as a healthy diet has.

He went from a perpetually sick, non-verbal child who would constantly grind his teeth with stimming being his only form of “play,” to a functional, verbal, friendly 7-year-old. We removed gluten from Seths diet when he was 3 years old. At the time he communicated with two semi- intelligible words, 2 days after the diet change he started speaking in complete sentences. The 5 times a day diarrhea became regulated and he was actually able to potty train a few weeks later. I understand this is not a typical reaction but as time went on I found that both of my parents are Celiac, my brother and I are gluten intolerant as well as our children. Removing the gluten that was aggravating the autism symptoms, Seth was able to use the tools he learned in therapy to help self-regulate when he stressed instead of shutting down.

Somewhere along the way I found the awesome Paleo lifestyle that filled the gaps we were missing nutritionally. While the rest of the family was able to change our eating habits, we were struggling with Seth’s. Vegetables made him gag, fruits made him gag, eating 2 or more different textures (think rice with chicken) made him gag, anything green made him gag (notice a theme) and we began to realize this whole gag thing might be that he in fact has a Sensory Disorder.

Sadly, we never quite saw this before on our version of a Standard American Diet, due to the fact what we ate was mostly cheap, carb heavy meals that were planned from “food products” I obtained at an extremely discounted price with my mad couponing skills. We were also stuck in this mindset that since he was a “toddler” and he should eat “toddler” things like Cheerios or crackers but that is ALL he ever wanted to eat. If you are not familiar with the autism brain, the commonly suggested “they will not starve themselves” mentality does not work with these kids, they WILL literally starve themselves with severe cases having to be tube fed.


For time sake here is a highlight of the most effective things we found helpful in transitioning Seth to a whole foods diet. Some may not work for you, some may not. Find what works for your family and do not let the S-L-O-W wheels of progress disappoint or derail you. Keep your eye on the big picture of your childs health.

A parents of children with special needs we realized we had a bit of two-fold battle when it came to adjusting our diet. First we had the typical family resistance that you commonly hear about, but secondly we were also trying to adjust meals to a child who has such difficulties with textures and change.

We try different fats and oils, different types meats, different ways to cook the food and even started hiding food. I hide it all the time!! Liver in the sauce, spinach in eggs (and smoothies, spaghetti, Paleo cakes/muffins, pancakes… lol) and even seaweed flakes instead of pepper. I also do everything I can to keep green on his plate, especially in foods he enjoys eating so hopefully he will stop discriminating just by color.

Really try to think out of the box for meal time. This leads me to a great program called Food Chaining. Food Chaining is a whole other blog post in itself. This is for the child that is more than just a “picky” eater. If you are the parent of a typical picky eater there awesome ideas here on introducing new foods, but in general Food Chaining is specifically geared towards children with food and texture aversion. For more information on Food Chaining, checkout the Facebook page here and Amazon book here.

Finally here is an example of our most recent attempt to get Seth to tolerate vegetables. As a family we focused on produce since this is his biggest food aversion. Seth recently started to drink apple juice so I bought a juicer and juiced apples. Slowly I added different vegetables or fruits besides apples each time, finding a combination he liked. Each time I would add a little more of the veggies and less of the fruit. From there we moved to smoothies with the same fruit/ veggie combination in the VitaMix to help him adjust to the thicker texture and to consume fiber. Sometimes we would make homemade Paleo ice cream of the same recipe with tiny, tiny chunks and then eventually introduce the food item in its whole form. Because the food experiences are kept positive he is less fearful of change plus his palate is adjusting. Realizing as I type this, some may think that 5 years to go from gagging on foods to a few bites of vegetables seems almost fruitless, I see it as a huge success.

I hope that some of these ideas help encourage you to keep trying through the difficulties, do you have any further food suggestions for the readers with special eaters?



Heather is a wife and working Mom of 4 kids (2 adopted from Haiti, 2 the old- fashioned way, 3 with special needs). She currently works on a tissue/ organ recovery team after spending many years as a career Firefighter/Paramedic. Heather is passionate about encouraging other families with special needs kids or from difficult beginnings and has a heart for Haiti which she frequently visits on medical teams. She loves spending time with her family, cooking, traveling, SUPing and a good dark chocolate. You can find her blogging over at www.tiptoeingodessa.com or peddling Choffy here.

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  • Thank you for this post! My daughter also had an immediate improvement in her autism-like symptoms after eliminating gluten. We also attribute diet as the foundation for her progress. I love how you pointed out how sensory issues look like picky eating and the progress is slow and steady. We’ve learned that each child’s unique needs call for a unique approach to eating, especially around introducing new foods. Congrats on the progress with your son and thanks for sharing your story!

  • Michelle

    Loved every bit of this post!! Like your son, my daughter has autism. She has been on a GFCF diet for the past 2 years and we’ve seen a dramatic improvement over her previous SAD diet. This post, however, has inspired me to take it to the next level. Dinners are usually very healthy with lots of cooked vegetables (hidden in soups, chilis, stews and casseroles) but I know with everything in me that Glutino pretzels, PB & J sandwiches (albeit on grain based GFCF bread) and canned peaches are not healthy lunches/snacks. I myself follow a 90% Paleo diet and I’m ready to do this all the way now… for the whole family. This post is just what I needed. Thanks from the bottom of my heart!

  • Jodey

    I think it’s wonderful that you’ve done all this for your child. I went down a very similar path with my 1st son, who has severe ADHD and SPD (along with other issues). Diet, exercise and understanding his different needs is sooooo important. Patience, though sometimes hard to come by, is of the utmost importance as well.

    It should be pointed out that SPD is not only about food/texture aversion. There are many ways it manifests, food/texture aversion being only 1 (or 2…). There are children who cannot process light touch, kids who need deep pressure to calm their bodies, people who can’t abide bright lights, movement, sound, etc.

    I’m not trying to take anything away from this post, only want to make sure anyone who reads this doesn’t think SPD is only about food.

  • Tara

    Great post. My daughter was recently diagnosed with ADD at age 9. My husband and I are only 2 months into the research so far, but I keep seeing the gluten free/GAPS theme here and am ready to jump in, but my husband thinks that is going overboard…Maybe a few more of these real life testimonials can help convince him.

  • Joy Dvorak

    Thank you for this post! My daughter also had an immediate improvement in her autism-like symptoms after eliminating gluten. We also attribute diet as the foundation for her progress. I love how you pointed out how sensory issues look like picky eating and the progress is slow and steady. We’ve learned that each child’s unique needs call for a unique approach to eating, especially around introducing new foods. Congrats on the progress with your son and thanks for sharing your story!

  • keri

    You just told my story…made me cry. Bravo! It was amazing to watch my little girl change…it would be very hard to tell she had ever been diagnosed with SPD. I was thrilled to read this and wish more people could benefit.

  • Katie Norris

    Finally, someone who eats Paleo and understand SPD! Sadly I have been met in the paleo community with “Your kid won’t starve himself and you just let him get away with not eating veggies because he acts up.” Well, my son never acted up over food, he just wouldn’t eat the food. No tantrum or anything. He did loose it over other sensory stuff like clothing but the food he just calmly didn’t eat. I tried suggesting to others with kids like mine who posted on forums asking for advice that you can change the textures of things to help them get used to foods. Such as making sweet potato “pancakes” with egg and pureed sweet potato first and gradually change to roasted chunks of sweet potato later. Or juice or Vitamix kale with fruit to get them used to it. But, I got pushback that all these things were not Paleo and I was instead feeding him Paleofied treats. However, it worked and he eats lettuce now, homemade kale chips, baked sweet potato and butternut squash, broccoli (still only the tops though) and asparagus! All things he would not eat before. You can slowly transition them and greatly improve their diet. All the “tell him to at least eat one bite, don’t give him other options, and he will eventually eat the mushroom” advice did not work. To me, it shows a great disrespect of our children with SPD to treat them like they are just manipulative “bratty children” when in reality it is a disorder. If we showed some compassion and really paid attention to what helps them, we can assist them in being healthy. Thanks to the diet changes he no longer has emotional breakdowns and his SPD has improved, even in clothing. Such as he can wear different kids of socks now.

    Thank you for raising awareness and helping our kids. Your post probably helps lots of parents feel better as well.

    • lisa

      I can totally relate as well…thanks for sharing. I am so tired of feeling like a bad mother because my 14 year old high functioning son with autism will not eat healthy with us. We transitioned to 95% paleo a year ago, but he is struggling so much with the changes. He is well underweight, and will indeed starve rather than eat what is put in front of him. I feel awful letting him have Kinnikinnick bread with peanut butter, gluten and dairy free processed foods, but he will literally not eat otherwise….

  • Meryl @ Expat Travels

    Wow, what an amazing post – thank you for sharing. My daughter does not have autism but she did have delayed speech. We took out gluten from her diet: voila, an amazing and rapid change. Her vocabulary is now above average for her age. She also began sleeping through the night, after waking every night at around midnight – 1 am and staying awake until 6am or so, without making up for the lack of sleep at other times. Unsurprisingly, I then also discovered I was gluten intolerant and cleared up a range of health issues by transitioning to Paleo.

  • Thank you, thank you, thank you! My son isn’t autistic, but I have suspected sensory processing disorder for a long time. It’s been a battle to get any doctors to take my concerns seriously because my son is not autistic. I get so tired of everyone telling me I just need to make him eat, or that he won’t starve himself. Those people don’t know what they are talking about and clearly have never dealt with anything like this before.

  • Allison Cokeley

    I am truly in tears after reading this… thank you so much for sharing your post! Our daughter is 3 and I can honestly relate 100%! I actually just texted my husband about an hour ago, telling him I don’t know what to do, I can’t get Avery to eat… she needs more food in her system and yet I literally cannot get her to eat! Some day are definitely better than others, and eating a whole foods diet, can at times, feel overwhelming and difficult, because changing it isn’t just changing food, it is learning to change your mind! I just wanted to say thank you, I really needed to hear this today, and knowing that I’m not alone makes the burden a little less heavy! Blessings!

  • Trista Moyers

    I’m going through this with our son. How funny is it that I never had fruit or veg aversions in my life until I was pregnant with my son, and they make him gag, and any cooked fruit or vegg did the same to me. I consider it a huge victory if he eats evrn small bites of anything green, the other day he ate sn entire apple then ate some paleo chicken nuggets I made. I wanted to cry. Right now he is eating ham rolled around grassfed cheese slices and raisins. Didn’t complain, didn’t ask for a cracker or bread. Thank you. I think I need to be more patient and persistent with his foods. Thanks for your post.

  • Katie Norris

    Awesome post!! Paleo helps me manage my bipolar disorder and we also found it stopped our son’s emotional outbursts. Also, his sensory processing issues slowly went away. The crying over the feel of his coat, certain t-shirts, the toe of his socks, fabric of pants, etc… stopped. He has always had food texture issues as well and the longer we remain Paleo, the better this has gotten. He started to eat tons of foods he would not eat before and for things he still has trouble with, we also try many different preparation options. Such as we found that chopping up the broccoli works but broccoli florets do not. We also noticed that foods he just refused to eat ended up being things he and I are actually both sensitive to, such as garlic and onions. Every time we hid things like garlic or onions, he got stomach distress and his ears turned bright red. I think Paleo can help us discern what is part of the SPD and what our kids might actually be sensitive to.

  • Samantha Hunnisett

    This post has been such a blessing to stumble across. I too have adopted children, my almost five year old daughter is so hard to feed, she has always been this way and will just sit there and refuse to even try it. She is skinny and underweight. I am beginning to see I am not alone and since her speech is very delayed I am finding alot of info on food allergies and speech delay links. She loves dairy (home made yogurt, smoothies, full fat cheese, butter, coconut) so I don’t want to take out dairy. Has anyone been in my position and taken just gluten and seen a difference in speech? Thank you again for your post!

    • It’s definitely worth trying Samantha. I would slowly try to take things out and see what improvements happen slowly. Kids do best with slow transitions. Our eBook, 3 Phase Paleo, is all about that and describes in detail with step by step instructions how we transitioned our kids: http://paleoparents.com/our-cookbooks/3-phase-paleo/ Best of luck!

  • Clover

    Hi, I just stumbled upon your post and am so encouraged. I know my kids need to be gluten free as do I and am making that change but my son has SPD mainly affecting his eating. He is a wheat and dairy boy. I am hoping u talk about it more but if not I would love to hear how he is doing now with this diet

  • Tanya Strauss

    Thank you so much for this post. My 6year old is an amazing child but he’s so limited in his food choices that it’s become a constant frustration for him, our family, our extended family and friends. I thought I’d tried everything but alas, I don’t think we’ve REALLY tried anything for a long time. Now I feel motivated to get back to my son’s (and daughter’s as well) diet and evaluate what is really working for him. I aim to get our family together on a paleo diet but I also realize that’s a FAR cry from the current mac n cheese diet he/they are on now. It’s so wonderful to read posts like this and remember that I’m NOT alone. 🙂

  • IthacaNancy

    Thanks for your post. I googled this morning to see if there is any hope in expanding the food horizons of my husband of 25 years, a very sensitive taster (very picky eater) who probably has some undiagnosed other stuff too (at 62 years old now, as a child he was just identified as uncooperative, not as someone with processing challenges). My nephew and grandson also are very picky eaters with some behavioral challenges. Thinking of their food choices and behavior as not just ‘bad behavior’, but ‘hard-wired’ brain stuff that they aren’t choosing, is helpful as I am a person who likes most foods (and the person who has to cook for and live with the very accomplished, but sometimes frustratingly unaware partner). It’s been three and a half years since this post; how’s it going?