Karrington O’Neill is 4 years old, weighs 27 pounds and is fond of wearing tutus, sparkly shirts and big pink bows in her hair.
Little girls don’t get any more adorable. Yet her parents say something has changed about Karrington in the past year, and it has the family troubled and searching for answers.
“She will only eat Eggo waffles, white bread and French fries,” says Tasha O’Neill, Karringon’s mother. “If you don’t give her a waffle, she’ll skip eating entirely, and it won’t bother her.”
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It’s easy to assume Karrington is just being finicky and needs stern discipline, but that’s not the case.
Karrington has a developmental disability, and doctors say that food aversions are a very real issue associated with such disabilities. The problem can result in children having eccentric, unhealthy and even dangerous eating habits.
Tasha O’Neill says help was tough to find – until the family learned of a program called the Summer Food Camp, offered by Charlotte Speech & Hearing, a United Way agency that identifies and treats speech-language and hearing disorders.
The camp is a unique, three-week affair that helps children ages 3 to 5 whose disabilities make them overly sensitive to the smell, taste, color, temperature or texture of certain foods.
“We’ve had children whose parents were at wit’s end because all the child would eat is baby food, bland food or food that was light brown, yellow or white,” said Monica Robinson, a speech pathologist who leads the camp’s hourlong sessions. “One client would only eat French fries … and literally tested for high cholesterol because of it.”
Parents often start out believing their child is going through a phase, she said, but the phase never ends, even as the habit becomes a health threat. “This becomes emotionally traumatic for the parents, who recognize that they are supposed to care and provide for their children, even as the child refuses to eat,” Robinson said.
Conditions that prompt such behavior include autism, Down syndrome and obsessive-compulsive disorder. It also can be associated with a childhood trauma that involved food, including a choking incident, experts say.
The camp, which is in its second year, takes a nonthreatening approach, literally teaching children to play with their food. They fish toys out of bowls of Jello, crush Cheerios with rolling pins, dip fingers in yogurt and even blow bubbles, which strengthens their lips.
Mateo Rodgriquez is among the students in the camp with Karrington. He’s 5, with big brown eyes, chubby cheeks and perfect hair.
His mother, Carmen Rodriguez, says Mateo is developmentally delayed when it comes to speech, so he either whispers to cover up his embarrassment or doesn’t talk at all. That explains why he sits with his hands folded during the camp while other children wiggle around and jabber.
“He has gone 10 months without eating warm food,” said his mom, who also has 8-year-old twins. “He eats crackers with cream cheese, bananas, baby food and chips.”
This is not the first time eating has been a problem for Mateo, she said. Before he switched to room temperature food, she had to feed him homemade soup because he refused solid food.
Like Karrington, he also refuses to put a toothbrush in his mouth.
A pediatric doctor referred Mateo to the camp, and Carmen Rodriguez says the family jumped at the chance for a miracle, just as they have jumped at countless other chances.
In this case, however, she says she’s seeing moments that give her hope. It started when her boy put aside his shyness and started going after bubbles blown by other students, trying to pop them.
Then, he really surprised her.
“He actually grabbed a strawberry,” she said, after observing the camp through a one-way mirror.
“When he picked it up, I couldn’t believe it. Touch is also an issue with these children, and he doesn’t touch anything slimy. If he even gets crumbs on his fingers or his clothes, he has to get them off immediately.”
This week, the camp will be exploring warm foods, she says: “And I’m praying for a breakthrough.”