As a mommy to a child with autism, I often fill many roles. I am a public defender (when rude people stare or make comments), a best friend, a teacher, an advocate, a nutritionist, a researcher, a student, and a melt down prevention specialist (this one is especially fun). However, I’ve also gained a new title over the past month – Food Detective.
To go back a bit, Skyler has been attending a private Christian school with neuro-typical children. His preschool class is small (five children), and he has been doing very well. I am so very proud of his progress, both academically and socially! However, a few weeks back, Skyler went through a “bad spell.” He was unable to focus at school, sometimes pushed other children, and would completely MELT DOWN when asked to sit in time-out. And when I say “melt down,” I unfortunately mean the type of screaming, crying, out-of-control fit that brings the principal from her office to see what in the world is going on down in the preschool classroom. After three days of this behavior, I was a crying mess and completely at my wit’s end. What in the world was happening to my sweet, happy son? I felt so utterly helpless and devastated. Around that time, I was also called into a meeting with the teacher and principal to discuss Skyler’s options for next school year. Several things were mentioned, but the words that stuck like a dagger in my heart were “possibly needs a one-on-one” and “may not be ready to handle kindergarten.” I’ve always taken pride in Skyler’s high academic skills. He has known his letter names and sounds and numbers since he was 3 years old! And now we were talking about holding him back in preschool another year? I can’t describe how I felt at that moment. I was shaken to the core. I kept thinking, “Am I delusional? Are my expectations for Skyler too high? Is he worse off than I thought? Am I one of those parents that live in denial?”
After wallowing in self-pity for about 24 hours, I vowed not to give up on Skyler. If his behavior was different those three days, then SOMETHING was causing it. I just had to figure out what (and FAST). After analyzing every single action over the past week, the only thing I could determine that was different was that his father was feeding him strawberry pop tarts in the morning for breakfast. He had started eating them the day before the behavior began, and he had eaten them for all three days. I asked myself, “Could pop tarts seriously cause this type of behavior?” So I hit the Internet, and BINGO – there was my answer – Red Dye #40. Many artificial dyes have actually been banned in other countries, but here in the good ol’ USA, we’re still throwing it into pretty much every food in the grocery aisle. And Mr. Red is a big BAD GUY in the world of artificial dyes – known for causing aggressive and impulsive behavior, irritability, tantrums, melt-downs, and crying spells. See this webpage to learn more.
So I got all excited and called my mother, saying, “I know what’s wrong! This must be it! It HAS to be it!” But what I was thinking was really, “PLEASE let this be it.” So, we eliminated the pop tarts in the morning, and sure enough, Skyler’s behavior changed back to normal, and he is now doing well again. WHEW! However, if you think it’s easy to eliminate Red #40, think again – it’s in EVERYTHING: drinks, sweets, and healthy cereal. In fact, you can’t just stay away from red foods – it’s even in white cake frosting! It’s been difficult to eliminate this dye from Skyler’s diet, but I can definitely say it has made a difference. It never ceases to amaze me how little changes to diet or supplements can so dramatically change my child’s personality. I am sure this is true of all children to some degree, but I think autistic children seem to take everything and multiply it by 100!
Skyler is now back on track to enter kindergarten in the fall. He is completing his classwork each day, and we are once again getting positive daily reports from school. We are currently keeping a food journal to try and track other foods that may lead to inattention or hyperactivity during the day, but I am just thrilled that the aggression and tantrums are things of the past. I will now continue forward in my new role of Food Detective, praying that I can continue to catch the culprits before my son can once again fall victim to their effects.