Autism and Picky Eating: Feeding Issues in Children with Autism

Children on the autism spectrum have a wide variety of issues, but one that may not seem obvious is autism and food issues. Finding solutions for food selectivity with autism may require help.

Parents of children on the autism spectrum face a wide range of issues and picky eating may be one of them. The only thing every parent wants for their child is for them to grow up healthy and happy. If your child doesn’t eat properly this can lead to other issues tied to malnutrition. For those dealing with autism, how do we get our children to eat properly if their autism creates finicky eaters?

Finicky Eaters and Autism

Since eating is a completely sensory activity, children who may have sensory issues on the autism spectrum may be more difficult to deal with at the dinner table. Taste, texture, and even temperature of the food on the table may cause autistic children to experience a negative trigger event. Even the aroma of food may be enough to trigger an “episode.” Many children on the autism spectrum who have food issues may suffer from Sensory Processing Disorder or SPD. This usually means that children are hypersensitive or hyposensitive to the food being served. They can even have a combination of the two. Also, many children on the autism spectrum do not enjoy an interruption of their routine. This means that once a child likes one specific type of food or drink there can be no substitution. If they like Coca-Cola in a glass bottle that is the only way they will have it.

Finicky Eaters and Autism


Picky Eater vs. Resistant/Problem Eater

So when does a picky or finicky eater become a problem eater? Often a picky or finicky eater will have an objection to some food, but will still eat a variety whereas a problem eater may have a tantrum or even a breakdown at mealtime. Thinkingautismguide.com identifies some characteristics of a problem eater as:

  • Eating 15-20 foods or less
  • Refusing one or more food group/texture
  • Preferring only strong flavors or bland flavors
  • Anxiety over new foods
  • Aversion to food aromas

While these may seem similar to a child who is picky, children on the autism spectrum (especially those with SPD) may take these behaviors to greater lengths. Parents of children who are problem eaters need to realize that this is a real physical/neurological response to food by their child. Sorry mom and dad…not your fault this time!!

Picky Eater vs. Resistant/Problem Eater


Tackling the Problem Of Feeding

Okay, you have a problem eater; what is the best way to make sure your child gets the nutrition they need from food? By following some simple guidelines you can create the best environment possible for your child. Some of these may include:

  • No Snacking!!: By allowing children to eat throughout the day makes it difficult to regulate some of the sensations that may negatively affect your child.
  • Improvisation: Don’t be afraid to have pancakes or some other “breakfast” food for dinner. If it means your child will eat dinner, don’t be a stickler for food only at certain times.
  • Deferred Choice: Allow children to pick and choose what plates, cups, or even silverware that they use at mealtimes.
  • Don’t Forget Favorites: Incorporate your child’s favorite into every meal. This can create an atmosphere of comfort or routine to your child.
  • Communicate: Make sure you eat with your children. At the same time, you should discuss the food you are eating and be sure to include taste, texture, and even the aroma of the food you are eating.
  • Create a Stress Free Environment: Since stress can minimize the appetite, any stressful environment at dinnertime may cause your child to want to avoid mealtime.
  • No Reward!!: You should not use dessert as a reward or enticement. This can create the bad habit of having to eat food that is not nutritious in order to eat the proper food they should be eating. Instead, incorporate some small amounts of dessert into the meal itself.
  • Create a Food Journal: Often it may require multiple attempts to get your problem eater to develop a taste for certain foods. Be persistent and patient, but keep track of all your attempts in order to find success!!
     

Tackling the Problem Of Feeding

Each child on the autism spectrum is different and so are their triggers (especially with food). You may need to try one or more different techniques in order to get your child to become a more regular connoisseur of your cooking. Work with your child’s therapist, since they may have an idea or insight of what triggers may set off your child to becoming a problem eater. Unfortunately, this endeavor may require a good deal of patience or even trial and error.


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