If you’ve been reading here any length of time, then you know that I have an itsy, bitsy, problem with food.  I LOVE food.  You know that saying, “Don’t live to eat.  Eat to live.”?  I like to follow that first part.  So, I rejoined a group called “Weight Watchers”.

I’ve lost all but about 3 stubborn pounds that just won’t get me to my goal.  And while I take responsibility for my actions, I still contend that having a child with autism has made this road especially difficult.  Losing weight and keeping it off are the same struggle.  Every hour of every day, it goes on for me, partially because of my son’s strange eating habits.

My son will not eat chicken, steak, fish, pasta, salad, veggies (except carrot sticks occasionally).  So what does he eat?  Here’s the menu:

It will always be a love/hate relationship, McDonalds...

powered sugar donuts – (halved)

brown sugar and cinnamon pop-tarts (no edges and bite sized)

Doritos (nacho cheese only)1 inch pieces or smaller

Nacho lunchables


McDonald’s cheeseburgers and fries

cheesecake (black & white – equal portions of each in each bite)

chocolate muffins -(bite sized)

chocolate chip cookies (bite sized)

Most fruit and strawberry flavored yogurt


ice cream


bite sized graham crackers

So, ABA is still running their “new foods” program.  What was the first new food they tried?  Mini pancakes with butter, syrup and whipped cream which he does not like!  And which, in “generalizing” it to me, required me to heat up, smell, cut into pieces, sit next to him and make sure he swallows.  (As he does not like it, he will pack it).  He has “mastered” this food and now we are slowly moving into healthier fare by trying to get him to eat…bread.

Not only does he “like” just the above, but if the bites are not the right size and shape he will shove it all in and choke or reject the food entirely.  He has actually heightened his food proclivities, rejecting french fries that are not of equal length or which have some potato skin on them.

So, while I struggle to eat within my dietary guidelines, I am daily subjected to sheer and utter torture.  My ability to abstain through each of my son’s meals should win me some kind of award.  Truly.  (And don’t you dare say my reward is my health and weight loss – just understand my t-o-r-t-u-r-e!)

So, what with all this dieting and gluttony juxtaposed together, I’ve been thinking a lot about the concept of gratification and instant gratification versus delayed gratification.  What makes us able to resist and what causes us to give in?  Is it weakness?  Overwhelming desire?

Obviously, some people have health issues that contribute to weight gain or loss.  Those are understandable.  What about the rest of us?  Those of us who have no health issues?  How is it that some of us can deal and others can’t?

So, I did what I always do and researched the issue.  I found a fascinating article in The New Yorker about self control.  It’s really about a Stanford professor of psychology, Walter Mischel (an interesting character) and his views of self control.

In the 1960’s, Mischel conducted a study with a group of children in a preschool setting at Stanford.  He placed a tray of marshmallows, cookies and pretzels in front of a child and told them they could pick which they wanted.  If they wanted to have it right away, they could have one.  If they could wait for the researcher to leave and return to the room, they could have two.  If they found they couldn’t wait, they could ring a bell and the researcher would come back and the child could have still have one.  The researcher would then leave and the child was videotaped.

Some ate it without waiting.  Some waited.  Some said they would wait and ate it while the researcher was out of the room without ringing the bell.  The goal of the study was to see what the mental processes were that allowed some to delay gratification while others simply surrendered.  What happened in the years following the study was what was interesting.  The children who participated were peers of Dr. Mischel’s children.  He would ask about these kids, first, casually as dinner conversation, then in further studies.  He saw some strong correlative results.

Once Mischel began analyzing the results, he noticed that low delayers, the children who rang the bell quickly, seemed more likely to have behavioral problems, both in school and at home. They got lower S.A.T. scores. They struggled in stressful situations, often had trouble paying attention, and found it difficult to maintain friendships. The child who could wait fifteen minutes had an S.A.T. score that was, on average, two hundred and ten points higher than that of the kid who could wait only thirty seconds.

And then it dawned on me:

This is what my son is doing in ABA.  Each “program” that is run, (including the new food program) promises a reward once my son completes the task.  He “works for” a reward.  He delays gratification in order to master a skill.  As he learns, he becomes stronger.  As Mischel explains it:

Intelligence is largely at the mercy of self-control: even the smartest kids still need to do their homework. “What we’re really measuring with the marshmallows isn’t will power or self-control,” Mischel says. “It’s much more important than that. This task forces kids to find a way to make the situation work for them. They want the second marshmallow, but how can they get it? We can’t control the world, but we can control how we think about it.”

When Mischel first conducted the study, the assumption was that whether the child would wait depended on how badly he/she wanted that goodie.  But it became obvious that everyone wanted the treat.  The difference was how the kids strategized to divert their attention from the goodie.

“If you’re thinking about the marshmallow and how delicious it is, then you’re going to eat it,” Mischel says. “The key is to avoid thinking about it in the first place.”

This skill is called “metacognition” or thinking about thinking.  It’s what allows us humans to outsmart our shortcomings.  What Mischel found was that this “thinking” problem was something that could be taught.  He decided this after some more studies showed that those with lower income had less self control.  As the New Yorker put it:

“When you grow up poor, you might not practice delay as much,” he says. “And if you don’t practice then you’ll never figure out how to distract yourself. You won’t develop the best delay strategies, and those strategies won’t become second nature.” In other words, people learn how to use their mind just as they learn how to use a computer: through trial and error.

But Mischel has found a shortcut. When he and his colleagues taught children a simple set of mental tricks—such as pretending that the candy is only a picture, surrounded by an imaginary frame—he dramatically improved their self-control. The kids who hadn’t been able to wait sixty seconds could now wait fifteen minutes. “All I’ve done is given them some tips from their mental user manual,” Mischel says. “Once you realize that will power is just a matter of learning how to control your attention and thoughts, you can really begin to increase it.”

Let’s see how that one works out for me…

It’s just a picture.  It’s just a picture.  Okay.  I’ll have to try harder.

Oh, yeah.  Now that’s better.

[For those who don’t know, this is my contribution to Special Needs Ryan Gosling started by Sunday at Adventures in Extreme Parenting.  Every Friday, special needs bloggers post a little something to make us smile… click on the button on the sidebar or here to see what everyone else has done this week! ]

Food Photo Credit goes to:  “Fuck Yeah, Delicious Food!” 

About solodialogue

I'm a lawyer and the mom of a 6 year old boy with autism. I work part time and spend the rest driving here and there and everywhere for my son's various therapies. Instead of trying cases, I now play Pac-man and watch SpongeBob. I wear old sweaters and jeans and always, always flat shoes to run after my son. Yeah, it's different but I wouldn't change it for anything. The love of my child is the most powerful, beautiful and rewarding aspect of my life.
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31 Responses to Self-Control.

  1. Flannery says:

    I hate you. That is all.

    (where’s the chocolate!?)

  2. **lol** I wouldn’t mind Ryan Gosling feeding me strawberries either!! 😉

  3. Lisa says:

    Now I’m hungry! Seriously, though, that is interesting about the Mischel study..maybe that can work!

    LOVE your Ryan Gosling! 🙂

  4. lizbeth says:

    See, when you compare food, any food, to Ryan Gosling, I’m going to eat Ryan Gosling every single time. And now I can’t stop thinking of cheesecake, carmel and Ryan Gosling…

  5. This sure makes one feel hungry. But as I read the post, I do find a number of nice insights….



    • solodialogue says:

      We are all alike in getting those hunger pangs. It is only a photo… it’s only a photo… 😉

      Mind over matter my friend – outsmart our shortcomings (at least my own!)

  6. Teresa says:

    Too good not to repost. Thank you.
    I call this using strategy instead of will power at WW. It’s the only way I got to goal because I am hopelessly human and have such limited will power but I can learn to set up systems that work.
    Your photo choice is killing me this am. I found myself hypnotic trying to decide if that was a peanut buttercup and was the bottom carmel. Some things never change.

    • solodialogue says:

      Yay! I too, am hopelessly human. If only I could figure out how to outsmart those desires – I know that keeping myself occupied with non-food things does work. It worked during my trial last summer, and whenever I have to plan for something (non-food related, of course!) The pizza shot is the one that really gets to me. Oh cheese, my frenemy!

  7. Patty says:

    I also have MAJOR problems with food. And looking at all those pictures made my cravings skyrocket!

    Love the poster! Ryan’s a sweetie!

  8. autismangel says:

    My gosh like everyone said, this def. is making me crave my sweets!!!

    We did ABA for 3 yrs. and it helped Dylan and his pickiness tremendously. He still loves his pizza, bagels donuts and pasta (italian) he grew up on that. But he eats meats with every meal and get a few veggies in him a day. It is a struggle with the ‘left overs’ though turning them down, leaving them sit or inhaling them! LOL!! And when you are all finished with Ryan and the strawberries just send him my way- with a tad bit of choc dip 🙂 tx.

    • solodialogue says:

      Good to know the ABA helped, Shelly! I really focused on you saying “get a few veggies in him a DAY”!! Wow, that would really be something. And does Dylan do this without making that special face? Cuz, Tootles? He makes a sour face eating pancakes of all things!!

      Btw, when I’m done with Ryan… wait that presupposes I would be, now doesn’t it? Haha! Just kidding… 😉

  9. I have little self control over the sweet goodness of anything cake-like lol …and when I PMS, give me the cake or get bit…there’s no easy way around it! lol

  10. Grace says:

    Am I the only special needs mommy in the bloggysphere who got more excited over the pictures of food than the picture of Ryan? Because I got really excited.

    I would have eaten all three treats before the researcher even left the room. Which explains a lot about me.

    • solodialogue says:

      (Shh – me too!)

      And I love that you would’ve eaten all three. That says you’re honest. How about me? I would’ve said I could hold out and tried to sneak them without being caught… what does that say about me? 😉

  11. I’m reading a book right now. I have to go run up the stairs and get it, as I can only see the cover in my mind. Forgive me, if you mentioned it in your post: I don’t always catch all details in reading the first time through. Okay, just a sec. ‘THe End of Overeating.’ It’s not a diet book. All about research studies, like you mentioned. I discovered in one study they think the front of the brain where executive functioning occurs helps to stop a person from eating certain foods or over eating, because it uses logic to say: No. Stop. Makes me wonder, since people on the spectrum have frontal lobe conditions??? Food for thought–no pun intended. Thanks for the informative post and all the yummy food photos. ~ Sam (Oh, and never tell a group of women your upset because you have 3 pounds to loose. Make sure it’s above 10. Maybe you do have Aspergers. lol)

    • solodialogue says:

      I’ve heard of that book before. I believe from the mom of a son who was just becoming an adult with autism. I must look into that.

      And I had to laugh at your comment! Yes. I may be on the spectrum after all. (I would’ve wanted to slap me 6 months ago!)

  12. kcunning says:

    I’ve noticed that life is becoming increasingly unfair when it comes to how my body handles life issues.

    I was 22 when I found out about Jake. Didn’t gain an ounce. I hate that me.

    I was 30 when I went through my divorce. Hello, twenty pounds of stress eating!

    As for the AS eating, Jake has that, too. We go through phases of ‘Better nutrition through starvation’ around here. We cut out all snacks (this includes getting the school and babysitter involved) and cut his lunch in half. Within a few days, he’s eating dinner again.

    I should mention that Jake also has hypoglycemia, so at a certain point, he’ll eat a dishtowel if he gets hungry enough.

    • solodialogue says:

      If I cut out the snacks, I think my kid would starve. I’ve tried a little bit of that but he just gets pickier the longer he holds out. It has to – by logic’s sake- work but I don’t think I could outlast him. He bluffs better than I do! Since ABA is getting somewhere, I’m gonna wait and see. Eventually, if they get a veggie in him (other than the baby carrots he’ll eat now) I’m just going to bow to their skills and take ’em! 🙂

      • kcunning says:

        Yeah, this is one of the times that hypoglycemia serves me well. I have it too, and if I get hungry enough, I will eat anything you put in front of me, even if I normally hate it. The lizard brain takes over and I barely taste what I’m eating.

      • solodialogue says:

        Hmmm… guess I just never get “hungry enough.” 😉

  13. Does the frame thing work?! I’m really comfort eating at the moment, which is extra bad in the absence of exercise. I also do that thing where I tell myself I “deserve” a treat after (or during, or before) a stressful day. Pudding is a very impulsive eater too- she’ll just go ahead and get something out of the cupboard, even if dinner is almost ready. Hard habits to break, and definitely not healthy ones!

    • solodialogue says:

      Habits and routines – very important to our kids – and I’ve learned too important to me in the eating world. I have come to the realization that a 5’2″ body does not need a 6 foot tall man’s food intake. Bummer.

  14. Yum. Oh, and the strawberries, too.

  15. eof737 says:

    All those photos make me hungry! 🙂

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