Children and adults with developmental disabilities often face challenges with eating, drinking and swallowing disorders than the general population. It is estimated that adults with intellectual disabilities require support from caregivers during mealtime. It is common among people who have a diagnosis of cerebral palsy, intellectual disability, physical disability and muscular dystrophy.
Dysphasia is a medical term used to describe any person having difficulty swallowing foods and liquids taking more energy and time to move food from the mouth to the stomach. Signs of dysphasia may include:
- Food or liquid remaining in the oral cavity after swallowing
- Complaints of pain when swallowing
- Coughing during or right after eating or drinking
- Extra time needed to chew or swallow
- Reflux of food
Dysphasia can lead to aspiration. Aspiration is defined when food, fluid, or other foreign material gets into the trachea or lungs instead of going down the esophagus and into the stomach. when this occurs, the person is able to cough to get the food or fluid out of their lungs, in some cases especially with children and adults with disabilities may not be able to cough. This is known as Silent Aspiration.
A complication of aspiration is Pneumonia which is defined as inhaling food, saliva, and liquids into the lungs
According to the Office of People with Developmental Disabilities Health and safety Alert, factors that place people at risk for aspiration include:
- Being fed by others
- Weak or absent coughing, and/or gag reflexes, commonly seen in people with cerebral palsy.
- food stuffing and rapid eating/drinking
- Poor chewing or swallowing pills
- GERD- the return of partially digested food or stomach contents to the esophagus
- Providing liquids or food consistencies the person is not able to tolerate such as eating whole foods.
- Seizures that may occur during eating and/or drinking.
How to recognize signs and symptoms of Aspiration:
- Choking or coughing while eating or just after eating
- Drooling while eating or just after eating
- Eyes start to water
- Shortness of breath
- Fever 30 minutes after eating
Intervene immediate if there are signs of aspiration:
- Stop feeding immediately
- Keep the person in an upright position
- Call 911 if the person has difficulty or stops breathing and no pulse
- Start rescue breathing
Minimize aspiration from occurring by serving the appropriate food texture and liquid consistency. If you are not sure of the right consistency, check with your health care provider. The following are pictures of food consistencies.
Whole. Food is served as it is normally prepared; no changes are needed in
preparation or consistency
1 ” Pieces cut to size. Food is served as prepared and cut into 1-inch pieces
(about the width of a fork).
1/4 Pieces Cut to Size. Food is cut with a knife or a pizza cutter or placed in a food
processor and cut into ¼ -inch pieces (about the width of a #2 pencil)
Ground. Food must be prepared using a food processor or comparable equipment
until MOIST, COHESIVE AND NO LARGER THAN A GRAIN OF RICE, or relish
like pieces, similar to pickle relish. Ground food must always be moist. Ground meat
is moistened with a liquid either before or after being prepared in the food processor
and is ALWAYS served with a moistener such as broth, low fat sauce, gravy or
appropriate condiment. Hard, dry ground particles are easy to inhale and must be
Pureed. Food must be prepared using a food processor or comparable equipment.
All foods are moistened and processed until smooth, achieving an applesauce-like or
pudding consistency. A spoon should NOT stand up in the food, but the consistency
should not be runny. Each food item is to be pureed separately, unless foods are
prepared in a mixture such as a soup, stew, casserole, or salad.
- Make sure the person eats slowly and takes small bites of food
- Ensure the person takes small sips of liquids
- Focus on the person’s swallowing
- Make sure the person remains upright for a minimum of thirty minutes after eating