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Tips for Living with Invisible Disabilities: Food Allergies Edition

We often focus on the medical aspect of food allergies for children and adults, but seldom do we reflect upon the toll it takes on those who navigate life with food allergies and their caregivers. Food allergies fall under the umbrella of the Americans with Disabilities (ADA) and for good reason. When someone has a food allergy that means that they may be susceptible to severe and life threatening reactions because their body reacts differently to a food that is considered otherwise safe. Add in to that well-meaning individuals who don’t understand some of the complexities and others who are just thoughtless or unkind, and living with food allergies can be tough! Below I’ve included my top tips to thriving with food allergies:

  1. Try to find the positive. This one is tough, because I will admit that so much of our society centers around food. It is foundational for many social activities. Although food allergies can make life challenging, I do credit it for making me more aware of what is in food and in some ways this has contributed to healthful eating choices in ways that go beyond just avoiding my allergen (s). Also, it created a sort of compassion in me that can only come from walking in these shoes.
  2. Focus on what you can eat, at least just as much as what you can’t. While a big part of managing food allergies is maintaining an almost hyperawareness of what goes on your plate, at one point I started appreciating the things I could have and the things I am able to enjoy. This is a case of glass half full, but it does remind me that I am able to eat a lot more things than I can’t.
  3. Be confident in advocating for yourself. At this stage in my life, I have very little qualms about what others may think of me doing what I need to be safe and feel comfortable. But… that was not always the case. So, if me now had a talk with me back then, I would tell myself not to worry so much about what others think when I ask questions at restaurants or have to turn down a treat. Breathing is important! Much more important than what others think. Those who know and care about me understand and accept this as part of who I am (and what I need to do!)
  4. Make sure that you are getting what you need in your diet just as much as keeping out the things you can’t have. This has been a very steep learning curve for me. Depending on the allergy, it may be necessary to take out whole entire food groups (such as dairy). Other food allergies such as wheat or eggs may make it harder to get other nutrients or protein (the later). Add in multiple food allergies and it gets really complicated. Learn what things you can put in to your diet to replace the vitamins and minerals that usually are obtained from your allergen. I ended up consulting a nutritionist at the local regional hospital who gave me tips and recipes for helping me with protein, calcium, and iron. Check with your insurance to see what they cover and what the requirements for this are (sometimes a referral and diagnosis code is required).
  5. Look for online support, but take it with a grain of salt. Emotional support is super important and it can be helpful to keep in touch with others who are experiencing the same as you. There is such a spectrum of allergy related conditions, though, so it is important to make sure that suggestions shared are right for you or your child. Always clear advice with your allergist and discuss a emergency plan in case of reaction.
  6. Find other ways to connect with people outside of food! Take a hike together or if food must be part, have a picnic where everyone BYO. Get creative here and have fun looking for ways outside of food to socialize.

When we teach and parent we touch the future and that is a pretty amazing place to be!

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Equity for Invisible Disabilities

As progress is made in the understanding of children whose brains develop differently, there is one area that continues to be problematic: the assumption that when a child is challenged behaviorally, the parents must not parent or the child is just being “difficult.” But for a parent who has tried all the “tried and true” methods with no results, the backstory is quite different.

The reality is, that for a child with developmental delays in executive functioning or maturational issues, the need for scaffolding and appreciating the baby-steps is incredibly important. If we heard that a teacher would not allow a child who is behind in reading to go to recess until they could read on grade-level, why would we do that to a child who has executive functioning delays that affects their impulse control. Of course, the issues need to be addressed, but I can promise you that a child who is repeating maladaptive behavior and receiving negative results isn’t in it for attention. And they certainly don’t enjoy it! Could it be that a fresh perspective is needed when looking at our frequent flier behavior challenges?

Many children who struggle with behavior challenges or organization simply do not connect the dots and they desperately need someone to come along side them to help them do it. Much like a structure under construction, they need behavioral scaffolding. And they need to know their small successes are just as important as the kids who get Student of the Month. So, be that person. Help them connect the dots. If tried and true consequences aren’t working for a kid, quit doing that and look outside the behavior chart box.

When you teach you touch the future and that is a pretty amazing place to be! For ideas on how to reach children in the classroom that are having trouble connecting the behavior dots, contact me for coaching and professional development opportunities at deannat@deannawestedtdeannawestedt.org