My sons are severely food and chemical intolerant. Their diets are severely restricted, just to enable them to cope with day to day life. Their adherence to the restricted diet literally enables them to survive. We avoid additives in food at all costs, and we avoid chemicals wherever possible as they affect the boys equally to the wrong food choices. They are aged 6 and 3.

My eldest son has commenced school and is in Year 1. Considering his dietary challenges, he copes with food and school incredibly well – but there have been and will always be the occasional slip ups. Pressure from peers is already impacting and will continue to do so as he journeys towards adulthood.

Late in the Kindergarten year, he was with some team mates after a Teeball game. He was eating his customary rice and drinking plain water whilst the other kids were tucking into soft drink and a box of pizza snack biscuits – the kind people might eat with dip. He was fairly unfazed as he is used to it, but the problem kicked in when he had finished – still hungry - and the others still had plenty to eat. He resisted their offering and the temptation to indulge until they reached the bottom of the box. It was then that he succumbed to the hunger and I daresay, the curiosity, (he has never eaten them before!) and he ate some crumbs from the box – less than would cover a 10 cent piece. He later remarked that he didn’t even like how they tasted!

Within 3 hours, the reaction started. He was due to go to a birthday party – I always stay with him for moral support because he can’t indulge in what others enjoy at parties – and as we arrived, the rot began to set in! He was no longer able to communicate with me in the way he usually would. His responses to questions were more a grunt than a reply. I had to physically manipulate his face to make eye contact with him and get his attention – and his eyes were wild!

He generally perspires freely even though he is only 6, but now he was perspiring profusely. His shirt, hat and shorts looked like the ones on Pat Rafter after a 5 set Final – and this is truly without exaggeration. He was soaked. He was moving in an agitated manner- his actions were jerky rather than smooth, and he was lashing out at things and people. He became surly and very defiant. He was irrational when compared to his usual behaviours. He hurt 4 friends at the party in 4 separate incidents whilst playing tips on and around some playground equipment. I had been observing and intervening – there was nothing malicious, but he had lost his finesse and the ability to be able to judge the other kids level of involvement. He had become face blind – oblivious to their anxiety and distress, and unable to see that they wished to cease the game. His need to continue the game was insatiable.

For the first time ever, these kids were actually scared of him and what he was doing, and they thought he had hurt them on purpose. He was at this point doing some real damage to the fragile relationships he had worked so hard to develop. The area the party was conducted in was also open to the public, and my son managed to get into 3 fights with slightly older boys he had never met before. In each instance, both parties were equally at fault, however the new children seemed to take an instant dislike to his overall behaviour and this was the impetus for the conflict. He was now unable to make good judgements about his actions and he took offence at the situation. Instead of altering his behaviours to become more socially acceptable, he lashed out and hit the other child – and so the fights began. My time was spent alternating between apologising to everyone profusely, heading his ill-considered choices off at the pass and repairing his crumbling relationships whilst helping out his inadvertent victims – his mates were suffering his horrendous reaction to flavour enhancers, flavours and preservatives vicariously.

Going home was no better – we were only two hours into the reaction and things weren’t going to get better in a hurry. I tried to keep him doing things outside to wear off as much energy as I could. Something happened and he was hurt. I think he took a bump on a tooth that was threatening to come out, but was nowhere near ready just yet. The bump made the tooth a little looser and it bled. I tried to soothe him and clean the blood without his knowledge, as blood worries him. It was no use because he became hysterical. His hysteria was very different to his usual teary fussing (as many 6 year olds do when in need of TLC). He began to scream and squeal a very high pitched squeal, he was rocking and flapping, he was panicking, he wanted comfort but kept pushing me away and he interspersed the screams and squeals with frenetic pleas of ‘Help me! Help me!’ He was inconsolable and it took me more than 1 ½ hours to calm him down to a reasonable state. He then continued to rock and sob on my lap.

Without the pizza shape irritants in his body, I would have been able to calm him right down within half an hour and he would not have exhibited the rocking, flapping and squealing behaviours (which are found on the Autism Spectrum along with face blindness and tactile defensivity – not wanting his personal space invaded, oversensitivity to touch, pushing me away despite wanting comfort). He also would not have pushed me away after the initial pain subsided. Consequently, he distressed his baby brother and his father – the whole house had been disrupted by the ingestion of the miniscule dose of pizza shapes only hours earlier.

The next phase of the reaction involved him not being able to go to sleep, and then once finally asleep, waking all through the night. He finally succumbed to sleep at 11.30pm after his usual Catapres dose and some Panadol several hours earlier. His body was still too irritated to properly settle down. Massage was useless because now he was oversensitive to touch. Whilst asleep, he did not lie still all night. He was thumping, wriggling, tossing and squirming all night. You could not say he had a restful evening and neither did we.

He was awake at about 6 am despite his late and unsettled night and the irritated, angry behaviours commenced immediately. He had an argument with his brother over the TV that ended in a fight, because he couldn’t step back and get help to sort it out without using his hands and body. He was physically and verbally aggressive and violent. His defiance was escalating and every single thing that went on in the day was a bone of contention. If we said it was black, he swore that it was white despite any evidence to the contrary. If his brother looked at one of his toys, or dared go near his bedroom door, then he hit him without even blinking. I spent this day diverting, refereeing and taking my son out of the house to separate everyone and try to reduce the exponentially increasing stress levels. Bedtime was no better tonight either.

He also began to exhibit physical symptoms today. He now had patches of eczema under his armpits – these only ever appear when he is reacting to something – he had a pre eczema scale – like ichthyosis - all over his torso that he constantly scratched at. He had heartburn, his belching increased, he had wind that you could hear in his digestive tract, he had ‘allergic shiners’ (large dark circles under his eyes), he had greyish skin tone, he had a red burn mark with skin peeling off his behind from the irritants passing through his digestive tract and burning him as it went. There was nothing I could use to relieve his discomfort as nothing would stay on his skin. These physical symptoms would remain until his body was finally clear of what he had ingested.

Upon waking the following day, it was still evident that the aggression was present, although a little milder than yesterday. I managed to encourage him to have some solitary play in his room. He was still irrational and oversensitive and not coping and lashing out. By the time school began, he was in tears clinging to my legs. He was suffering terrific mood swings and his anxiety levels had really increased – he becomes very anxious when his body is compromised by the wrong foods or chemicals and this directly affects his behaviours too. I let his teacher know and organised to collect him early as I knew a whole day of school would be too much. His ability to perform his work had significantly decreased compared to the week before and he needed much more support to complete tasks. His behaviours in the playground were more frenetic and wild, but fortunately he didn’t get into any scrapes that might be finished physically.

In the afternoon, he exploded again – tiredness and the pizza shapes a volatile combination. I rode a rollercoaster of violence, verbal abuse, screaming, aggression, hugs and apologies. It was all I could do to get the situation calm enough for us all to co-exist when Dad got home from work. Unsettled sleep was still an issue. This pattern of morning irritation, school, early pickup, irrationality, abuse and calm continued for another 6 days before things significantly improved. It was a hell of a long time to suffer for such a piddling amount of additive laden Pizza biscuits! Another unfortunate feature that reared its ugly head during this horror period was a return to very negative self image; calling himself stupid and an idiot, saying and believing that no-one liked him and no-one loved him, and believing that his friends didn’t like him anymore either. When he has a reaction like this, he believes he is not a good person. This is a very heavy burden for such a small person, but it has been a part of his reaction pattern since he began to speak. When he was eating a lot more foods when very small - before we had pinpointed the problem (and life was hell for everyone), he would sometimes self harm and sometimes even say ‘I wish I was dead’. It is a very scary and affronting thing to hear your two year old say, "I’m a yucky person! I wish I was dead!"

I always take great pains to point out the wonderful things about him and his achievements and I try to provide lots of situations where he will feel success, but it is undermined very quickly when something like the pizza biscuit incident occurs.

Oh, and what additives were in the box? A combination of at least four glutamate flavour enhancers, some colours, added flavours, vegetable fat (that is likely to contain one of the harmful antioxidants but which doesn’t have to be listed because it represents less than 10 percent of the final product), cheese powder (also usually has added flavour enhancer in the manufacturing), spices… I think anyone reading this will get the picture!

What can be learned from this horrible but true story?

•     Food additives DO hurt children.

•     Food additives vicariously affect others.

•     Possible reactions are many and varied. If you’re lucky, you may only exhibit a few minor irritations. If you are unlucky, it will affect your whole life until you can overcome the dosage.

•     Physical, mental, social and emotional health can be affected equally.

•     Reactions are dose related. The more you have, the more likely you are to suffer a reaction.

•     Reactions are individual, and depend on your tolerance.

•     Society eventually pays for the individuals who cannot cope with the additives in their diet but are not aware of the connection: mental illness, conduct disorder, depression, drug dependency, costly and often ineffective medication to treat a sufferer's great variety of symptoms, property damage, incidents of rage, family and relationship breakdown, compensation paid to people who end up the innocent victims of others who themselves are really the victims of the food industry… All of this has a cost, whether just an emotional one, or a monetary one. Incarceration of food ’victims’ is yet another cost – and one better spent in prevention and better health outcomes for all.

Many of the additives now permitted for use in our foods were not permitted as recently as 5 years ago. If we didn’t need them in our food then, and they can have a harmful effect on children and adults alike, then WHY are we allowing them into our food now?! - Sheryl, ACT