In March, when the coronavirus pandemic hit, Ashlyn’s routine was disrupted and one of her reactions was to refuse to eat anything other than her favorite meal.
“She wanted nothing but SpaghettiOs, not even generic brands,” said MacDonald, who explained that her daughter has nonverbal autism.
Ashlyn was upset that she could no longer attend her special school due to the pandemic, her mother said, and she found solace in SpaghettiOs with meatballs. She insisted on eating them for breakfast, lunch and dinner.
“Structure is what centers her – it gives her a sense of control when everything else feels chaotic and overwhelming,” MacDonald said. “Ashlyn is most comfortable when she feels like she is experiencing Groundhog Day every day. Spaghetti is a sensory experience for her.
MacDonald and her husband, Jeffrey MacDonald, had no trouble finding enough boxes of SpaghettiO to keep Ashlyn happy at mealtime. Then in mid-April, Crystal MacDonald stopped by her regular market one afternoon and found that the shelves had been cleared of SpaghettiO.
“People were going crazy, loading up whatever canned food they could find, including spaghetti,” she says. “I had to go to all the grocery stores in the area to find enough for Ashlyn. It became like a treasure hunt to find just a few cans.
For the next five months, Crystal MacDonald walked for miles in more than a dozen stores to find the canned pasta. Last month, it was featured in a local newspaper article on the region’s food shortages.
Many people read the story and to her surprise responded not with judgment that she repeatedly fed her daughter the prepackaged meal, but with support. They wanted to help her find SpaghettiO with meatballs for Ashlyn.
Some have scoured their own pantries and started offering spaghetti from their kitchen shelves. Others called grocery stores to see if they had any cans in stock.
“When I read Crystal’s story, I immediately knew I wanted to help,” said Janet Gallo, 47, of Foxboro, Mass. “We’ve all felt the stress of out-of-stock items during this pandemic, but Crystal doesn’t. I don’t have the ability to make substitutions like most people do.
“The thought that she had to call many stores multiple times a week tore my heart,” Gallo added.
Gallo said she checked several local stores, found 10 cans and followed MacDonald on Facebook to ask for his address.
“On the way to drop them off, I decided to visit another store and found 15 more cans,” she said. “I believe if everyone makes a little effort to help each other, together can we make a big difference.”
Jade Lam from Attleboro was also happy to participate.
“Having an autistic brother, I thought how difficult it must be to [Ashlyn] to eat anything else, “said Lam, 30.” So I started calling my friends who work in the grocery stores and they were able to find some.
Lam, who has a one-year-old daughter, now calls stores regularly and asks them to set aside several boxes of SpaghettiO for MacDonald when a new supply arrives.
“I was so happy to have helped, that I wanted to continue,” she said.
MacDonald said she was stunned by the outpouring of support. In addition to over 400 boxes of pasta pasta donated by friends and strangers in its community, Campbell Soup Co. recently delivered 782 cans of canned food to its front door.
“Our pantry is now full – it’s been heartwarming,” she says. “A lot of people tell me, ‘I have an autistic son’ or ‘I have an autistic sister’. They can understand what it is like to try to give a child something that makes them feel good.
MacDonald said Ashlyn, her second child, was diagnosed with autism when she was around 16 months old.
“We noticed after she was a year old that she didn’t say ‘mom’ or refer to things like our oldest child did,” she says. “After numerous tests, we found out that she was autistic.”
Now every morning MacDonald says she wakes Ashlyn up to her favorite song, “Firework” by Katy Perry, then dresses her in cotton clothes without tags because she is sensitive to materials that are not soft and smooth. .
For breakfast, she opens the first box of spaghettiOs of the day with meatballs.
“They actually contain more nutrients than you might think,” she says. “They are enriched and rich in protein. And that’s really the only thing she’ll eat now.
Ashlyn recently returned to her special school, MacDonald said, so she puts a box of pasta in her backpack every morning.
“She would notice it right away if we tried to give her a replacement,” she says.
Ashlyn doesn’t say a lot of words, she says, “but if you try to give her something else to eat, she gives you a look that says,” Don’t you dare cheat on me. “
“People who haven’t experienced it probably don’t realize how important structure is to someone with autism,” MacDonald said. “Sometimes you have to do unusual things to keep them safe and calm.”
For Ashlyn, she says, that comfort and tranquility is now found in a pantry filled with more than 1,000 cans.
“When she sees all these boxes of SpaghettiO, she’s really happy,” MacDonald said.