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Starch Man and I go nutritious.

We Americans have been criticized for being an overweight country, with fast food chains and TV-watching being the most often-named culprits. But it all starts in our heads, really

I know this, because I am a super genius, as well as being the mother of a superhero.

My son Nick--who is 28 and has autism--received a blue T-shirt for his birthday with a big red "S" on the front. Now, most folks assume that represents Superman. But for Nick, it actually stands for: Starch Man!

Faster than a melting caramel. Able to leap tall piles of pasta in a single bound.

It's a popcorn-eating bird. It's a sugar-high plane. Pizzas tremble at the sound of his name. It's ... Starch Man!

One night each week, I lay out all the leftovers from the meals I cooked the other six nights. There is one rule on Leftovers Night: Get it gone. The meal does not have to be balanced. No "some meat, a little starch and a lot of veggies" rule applies. I do not patrol the back of the buffet line, whispering in a husky and menacing voice: "Is there green on that plate?"

When left to his own devices and without any nutritional controls, what will Nick invariably choose?

Picture, if you will, a red plate covered with great mounds of white stuff: fluffy jasmine rice, chivy-buttery mashed potatoes, French bread. There you have it. Starch Man has struck again.

Nick has never linked cause and effect. So when he did something naughty like bite his younger brother, Duncan, and then I started hollering, those were two separate and unrelated events. From Nick's perspective, they must have felt like: 1) I gave my darling baby brother a harmless love bite, and 2) for no apparent reason, my mother just went insane on me.

It turns out that we all need cause and effect, and the idea of empathy, to evolve a conscience. The concept of "How would you feel if this happened to you?" is actually fairly complex, when you break it down.

To get to an answer to that question, you need to accept first that you are choosing what to do, instead of just randomly and compulsively doing it.

Then you need to be able to put yourself in someone else's shoes--outside of yourself and into their body and reactions. You need to imagine how your action is going to feel from their perspective.

And then you need to be willing to be accountable for causing that feeling by your choice and action. Heady stuff, yes?

Since Nick does not seem to be able to do this, helping him learn not to bite people--and otherwise fit into society with polite grace--has been a long journey, based on behavior, not conscience. It is all about following up his actions with immediate results. Biting your little brother elicits the removal of all your favorite DVD movies. Kissing and hugging, and being generally gentle and loving to your little brother, get those DVDs back.

Like Pavlov and his bell, I did my level best to focus on steady, systematic reward or removal, based on Nick's choices, and to try to keep the hollering out of it. I was not always successful in the not-yelling part of the experiment. Okay a lot of the time, I yelled.

I am, after all, a frazzled mom in the real world, not an actual scientist in a laboratory

But, over time, Nick still learned to be kind from doing it, over and over.

I think linking actions and consequences is pretty tricky for most of us, especially when it comes to what we put into our mouths. That big pause requiring big imagination is tough when we are really hungry and something looks really delicious.

For example, when I see that perfect shiny brown glaze on that maple bar in the Safeway bakery case, it takes firm mental gymnastics to compel myself to stop and remember: It has basically no nutritional value whatsoever, it will taste delicious in my mouth but then become a heavy rocklike gut bomb in my belly, and it will inspire a flu-like sugar headache and general whole-body malaise that will last until the donut has passed out of my system.

So, being a grown-up lady who does not want to experience that pain, I sigh and push the grocery cart on and out of the bakery aisle and toward the produce department.

Most of the time.

Actually, having the Starch Man with me at the market helps a lot.

Since Nick is perpetually attracted to all things sugar--whether simple in the form of candy and cookies, or complex in carbohydrates--lam endlessly saying, "No, no, no," and steering him toward healthier options. This has the extra side benefit of keeping me away from junk food, as well.

The good news is that, being the creatures of habit that we humans are, after a while I have found that I actually crave the good stuff. Because my personal Kryptonite has long been Fritos, I have learned to make crunchy chips from kale and zucchini. Okay, so yes, I dip those healthy little buggers in ranch or bleu cheese dressing, but the idea is good, right?

Nick reminds me when the big fruit bowl on the counter is getting empty, and I give him the job of picking out the apples and pears and peaches and bananas at the store to refill it. Okay, so yes, I smother my fruit sections in peanut butter or layer them between slices of cheddar cheese, but the idea is good, right?

I guess I am glad that Nick does what I say, and not always what I do.

I am, after all, the mother of a superhero. And keeping up with Starch Man does take a lot of calories.

[Amy Morris-Young graduated from and taught writing at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles.]


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Title Annotation:HEALTH & WELL-BEING
Author:Morris-Young, Amy
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Sep 9, 2016
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