Eileen Shaklee, the woman behind the blog Autism With a Side of Fries, is used to sharing candid stories about raising a son with autism with her readers. Even when she writes about difficult topics and moments from her own life, Eileen maintains a positivity that draws readers in and makes it impossible not to relate to and empathize with the stories she shares. On Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter, “Mama Fry,” as she’s known to her followers, goes beyond just sharing updates and photos from her own life—she’s built a loyal and engaged community.
For our December newsletter, Eileen spoke to Intercare about everything from how the pandemic has impacted her family to how to handle food-related issues around the holidays.
How has parenting an autistic child been impacted by the pandemic for you?
More than I ever could have imagined. We've had some bumps in the road with his schedule. School was once canceled in our area for two weeks due to a hurricane—so back in March, when they said "two weeks," I thought it would be rough, but it was nothing we hadn't done before and we could manage. Now that it's become "The Pandemic That Never Ends,” it's been so hard. He has regressed a lot and we are seeing a spike in his anxiety that's been brutal on him. Despite everything you have heard about autism, my son is a social kid. He missed his peers and his routine at school so very much. He's having a hard time understanding why we need to stay home so much.
How are the holidays, in particular, looking different this year for your family?
Well they've become "just us" ones and that's been different. My son is an only child, so going to see his cousins is super fun for him. Now, we can't and he's really sad about that. He's also a big model train fan and usually around now we are hitting all the local holiday train shows. Of course, they have been canceled so it was another thing taken away from him, which was really hard. He wasn't asking for a trip to Disney; he just wants to see the local model train show, and not being able to do that fun family tradition was really disappointing to him and to us.
What advice do you have for parents of autistic children who are struggling during the holiday season?
Just know you aren't alone. Reach out to another family in the same boat. Don't bottle it up. Get online and find a good parenting social media account or group. Just texting "hello" to someone else helps. Realize there will be up days and down ones, ones that shock the heck out of you—both good and bad. Lean into the good moments, because they'll keep you going in the bad ones.
You've written a lot about food and eating issues, which is something a lot of kids with autism deal with. Can you share a little about your family's journey with this? Are fries still a staple food for your kiddo?
One thing I have learned is many kids that are labeled "picky eaters" are ones with sensory processing challenges and that's my Kiddo. Things like textures are a huge challenge for him and if they are mixed together (like a sandwich), he will take that whole thing apart and eat it section by section. At 15, he only finally started eating cheeseburgers and even those are from one restaurant only. One thing that has helped has been feeding therapy that his speech therapist did with him. I referred to her as the "Magical Speech Therapist from Hogwarts" because she really expanded his range. Sometimes he'll suddenly decide he doesn't like a food anymore and I don't make a fuss about it. You can't force someone to eat something. You have to establish trust and patience with them. The other day, he shocked us by trying and then devouring Penne with Vodka Sauce. Who knew? Not me! And yes, FRIES are still very much LIFE! (But I can say pizza is probably a close second.)
Are there any specific challenges related to food and eating that come up around the holidays? If so, what are they and how do you and your son prepare for/minimize them?
You know when you get invited over somewhere and you ask the host/hostess, "What can I bring?" Well, my family has learned to say, "Bring what he'll eat,” because they get it and I do. Anything extra he tries there is just a bonus but yes, I do travel with food for him. I'd rather him be fed than "hangry" and starving.
What advice do you have for parents of kids with autism who struggle with food or feeding?
Feeding therapy and food chaining. It works, but do your research. Ask if a therapist (usually a speech or occupational) has been trained in it. If anyone tries the old school, "They'll eat when they're hungry" method with them, RUN! On a daily basis, just have the best food choices available that you can. I have just found the more I pushed, the more he resisted. So my offerings are always, "Hey, you want to give this a kiss?" If they kiss something, they tend to lick their lips after and that's usually when they see, "Hmmm, that's tasty."
What made you decide to share your story in a blog?
I was encouraged by a Facebook friend of mine to write a "Day in the Life" for a blog that she did for a radio station she worked at. I really did it as a one off, just for fun. It went viral and I had folks hunting me down on Facebook, which was wild! So then I decided why not and launched my blog.
Was there a specific moment when you realized your blog had "taken off" in a way that was bigger or different from the way you initially expected?
There have been a few "Oh my god. How is this happening?" moments for sure. Having a shot of my blog on a character's laptop screen on Netflix's Atypical was one. I've had opportunities to do public speaking at various conferences and functions. Just waking up and finding an email from readers all over the globe just blows my mind. (Apparently, I'm very popular in Australia!) By far the craziest moment was when the Oscar Mayer Wienermobile came to my house to give Kiddo and myself a ride after they read a post about the Kiddo, who still likes to dress up and trick or treat for Halloween even though he's 16. You want to get your neighbors in the cul-de-sac talking about you? Have the Wienermobile roll up on a quiet Sunday morning.
If you could go back in time and give yourself one piece of advice about parenting a child with special needs, what would it be?
Sleep now! But seriously, relax. Calm the heck down. You'll miss so much if you are too busy being sad or angry. You don't get a do-over. You only get this. I have always said autism is a trip I didn't plan, but I sure do love my tour guide. He shows me the way. I follow his lead.
What are you and your family looking forward to most about 2021 and life going back to "normal"? What has been the most challenging thing about 2020 for your family?
Kiddo had only just started off-campus job training at school in January and was loving it ‘til COVID hit. We are all very eager to get him back out to work again. So I can't wait till we're back to that point again where he can safely. He misses it a lot. Kiddo loves going to the movies, so that's been tough. I miss going with him. He's also a snuggler and I know he misses snuggling his Gran and giving her hugs. I miss our routine and not having an "end date" in sight has been hard.
Can you share any personal tips for surviving and thriving while social distancing for families of children with autism?
I was never more grateful that we have a pool than I was this summer. We spent a lot of time in it. Getting out helps, even if it's just a drive to get some "window fries," as Kiddo calls them, at a drive-thru. Also, don't beat yourself up about any parenting choices you're making now. None of this is normal. Kiddo has been on screens more than I would like, but he's lost enough. If chilling out with YouTube helps him, I'm letting it roll.
For anyone who isn't familiar with your blog, Autism with a Side of Fries, can you give a quick overview of what you have to offer and the community of readers there?
Where the main action is really at is my Facebook page (but I'm on Instagram, too!). I try to keep the message upbeat, but also real. If I have a crappy day, I'm not going to sugar coat it, but I'm also not going to dwell on it. Misery doesn't do much for you and no one is getting a trophy for most suffering. More so this year, I have been trying to show what autism is like for older kids. Kiddo was only eight when I started the blog and now he's 16. It's a whole other ballgame now. I like sharing that with families with younger kids so they know what's coming.