Crystal MacDonald’s daughter Ashlyn — who is 11 years old and autistic — is very loyal to her favorite meal: canned SpaghettiOs with miniature meatballs.

“She would eat a few other things like pizza and grilled cheese, but she has always loved those the most,” said MacDonald, 34, a mother of five who lives in Attleboro, Mass. “For years, it’s been her ‘go-to’ comfort meal.”

In March, when the coronavirus pandemic hit, Ashlyn’s routine was disrupted, and one of her reactions was to refuse to eat anything besides her preferred meal.

“She wanted nothing except SpaghettiOs, not even generic brands,” said MacDonald, who explained that her daughter has nonverbal autism.

Ashlyn was upset she could no longer attend her special needs school because of the pandemic, said her mother, and she found comfort 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 seems chaotic and overwhelming,” MacDonald said. “Ashlyn is most comfortable when she feels like she’s living ‘Groundhog Day’ every day. SpaghettiOs are a sensory experience for her.”

MacDonald and her husband, Jeffrey MacDonald, had no trouble finding enough cans of SpaghettiOs to keep Ashlyn happy at mealtime. Then, in mid-April, Crystal MacDonald dropped by her regular market one afternoon and found the shelves had been cleared of SpaghettiOs.

“People were going nuts, loading up on all the canned goods they could find, including SpaghettiOs,” she said. “I had to go to every grocery store in the area to find enough for Ashlyn. It became like a treasure hunt to find just a couple of cans.”

For the next five months, Crystal MacDonald drove miles out of her way to more than a dozen stores to find the canned pasta. Last month, she was featured in a local newspaper story about area food shortages.

A lot of people read the story, and to her surprise, they responded not with judgment that she was repeatedly feeding her daughter the prepackaged meal, but with support. They wanted to help her find SpaghettiOs with meatballs for Ashlyn.

Some scoured their own pantries and began offering up the SpaghettiOs from their kitchen shelves. Others called grocery stores to see if they had any cans in stock.

“When I read about Crystal’s story, I knew immediately that I wanted to help,” said Janet Gallo, 47, of Foxboro, Mass. “We’ve all felt the stress of items being out of stock during this pandemic, but Crystal doesn’t have the option to make substitutions like most people do.”

“The thought of her having to call numerous stores multiple times every week was heartbreaking to me,” Gallo added.

Gallo said she checked several local stores, found 10 cans and tracked MacDonald down on Facebook to ask for her address.

“On the way to drop them off, I decided to check another store and found 15 more cans,” she said. “I believe that if everyone makes a small effort to help others, together can we make a big difference.”

Jade Lam of Attleboro was also happy to chip in.

“Having an autistic brother, I thought of how hard it must be to get [Ashlyn] to eat anything else,” said Lam, 30. “So I started to call my friends who work in grocery stores and they were able to find some.”

Lam, who has a 1-year-old daughter, now calls stores regularly and asks them to set aside several cans of SpaghettiOs for MacDonald when a new supply comes in.

“I was so happy to have helped, that I wanted to keep going,” she said.

MacDonald said she is stunned by the outpouring of support. In addition to more than 400 cans of pasta donated by friends and strangers in her community, the Campbell Soup Co. recently delivered 782 cans of it to her front door.

“Our pantry is now loaded — it’s been heartwarming,” she said. “A lot of people tell me, ‘I have a son with autism,’ or ‘I have a sister with autism.’ They can relate to what it’s like to try to give a child that one thing that makes them feel good.”

MacDonald said that Ashlyn, her second child, was diagnosed with autism when she was about 16 months old.

“We noticed after she turned 1 that she wasn’t saying ‘mama’ or pointing to things like our oldest child had,” she said. “After a lot of testing, we learned that she was autistic.”

Now, every morning, MacDonald said she awakens Ashlyn with her favorite song, Katy Perry’s “Firework,” then dresses her in cotton clothes free of tags because she is sensitive to materials that aren’t soft and smooth.

For breakfast, she opens the day’s first can of SpaghettiOs with meatballs.

“They actually have more nutrients than you would think,” she said. “They’re fortified and full of protein. And they’re truly the only thing that she will eat right now.”

Ashlyn recently returned to her special needs school, said MacDonald, so she tucks a can of pasta into her backpack every morning.

“She would notice right away if we tried to give her a substitute,” she said.

Ashlyn doesn’t say many words, she said, “but if you try to give her something else to eat, she gives you a look that says, ‘Don’t you dare trick me.’ ”

“People who haven’t lived it probably don’t realize how important structure is to somebody with autism,” said MacDonald. “You sometimes have to do unusual things to keep them safe and calm.”

For Ashlyn, she said, that comfort and calmness can now be found in a pantry stacked with more than 1,000 cans.

“When she sees all those cans of SpaghettiOs, she’s very happy,” MacDonald said.

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