World Autism Acceptance Week 2022
To mark World Autism Acceptance Week (28 March – 3 April) and World Autism Day (2 April), we’re shining the spotlight on mealtime struggles.
It’s estimated that roughly one in every 100 children in the UK is on the autism spectrum, according to Beyond Autism. It’s common for children on the autism spectrum to have challenges when it comes to eating, which can be for a number of reasons. However there are some strategies that experts have shared that can help.
How does autism affect eating?
Children with autism are five times more likely to have food challenges, since autism and food refusal is a common challenge according to Autism Speaks.
The smell, texture, taste and even the colour of certain foods, may limit foods and even entire food groups. Some foods may be too strongly flavoured, others may have an unenjoyable texture.
It’s estimated that over half of all autistic children (between 46 and 89 per cent) have food selectivity, according to the Indiana Resource Center for Autism. This can range from autism and food refusal through to limited or selective diets, ritualistic eating behaviors and teatime tantrums.
For many parents this can be an anxious time, which can be navigated with guidance and patience say experts.
However, if your autistic child won’t eat anything, if you’re concerned about their welfare, or suspect food intolerance or sensory issues, it’s important to seek professional medical support through your GP or caregiver in the first instance.
Tips for Fussy Eating Behaviour in Children on the Autism Spectrum
Here are ten tips provided by professional bodies, for Autism Awareness Day 2022.
Use special interests as tools
According to the National Autistic Society (NAS), many autistic people have specific interests. This could be a particular toy, an intense interest in a subject, or becoming attached to certain objects, for instance. But did you know that these obsessions and interests can be used as a teatime tool?
The NAS advise that parents can “use a special interest to encourage them to eat more volume or variety, e.g by eating from a Thomas the Tank Engine plate, cutting food into rocket shapes, or exploring foods from the country or region of their favourite singer or sports team” according to their helpful eating guide.
(above, the Munchy Play Thomas Train Plate)
Keep mealtimes relaxed
Plan ahead to avoid stress-free mealtimes, which can just feed into anxiety. Although this isn’t always possible, or easy, you may find that a calmer environment is more conducive to your child’s sensory preferences.
Structure and routine
Marcus Autism Center in USA believes that children with autism benefit from “structure and routine, which should include mealtimes”.
They advise that eating at predictable times every day can help this, specifically keeping to three meals and two snacks a day as part of a structured routine.
Habitual and sameness
Furthermore, NAS suggest that if you’re looking at ways of how to get a child with autism to eat, try seating them in the same place at the table every day, and using the same kids plate and cutlery for familiarity.
Play with food
As we have long advocated, playing with food may help motivate your autistic child to try new foods.
“This may look like making fun shapes with the food or examining the food’s textures, smells, and so on. The idea is to have your child engage with the food as much as possible” suggests Healthline.
Making mealtimes enjoyable for everyone, be it using a fun plate or kids pick plate is one of the best ways to bring children to the table and keep them there.
Introduce new foods slowly
Autism and food refusal is a common theme, especially between 1.5 and 2 years old, also known as ‘Neophobia’ – fear of the new.
Introducing new foods in small ways is a good way to ease your picky eater child into new foods. The Autism Awareness Centre recommends allowing the child time to explore the new food and get used to it being on their toddler pick plate. Be prepared that it may take up to 20 exposures before a child will try that food.
Recognise good behaviour
As with all picky eating behaviour, it’s advised to praise (and focus on) good behaviours. For instance, if your autistic child only eats chicken nuggets, perhaps acknowledge that they are sitting nicely. When disruptive behavior starts, Healthline suggests talking about food colours, texture and taste may help “capture their attention”
Keep a food diary
According to the NHS, keeping a food diary is one way to spotting any common issues your child has. This should include “what, where and when your child eats” so you can start to build a picture. This is also useful to share with your GP and nutritionists.
It’s not all about how to get a child with autism to eat. In some cases, over-eating may be the issue. If this is the case, NAS recommend using a small children’s plate or reducing portion size. And since visual cues can help, showing them an empty saucepan is another way to demonstrate that the food has all gone.
Experts at The Child Mind Institute advise that parents need to model behaviour for their children. Simply put, if you expect your child to eat a balanced diet, then you should be reflecting that in your own food choices too.
Picky eating behaviour in children with autism is a complex issue that we have only touched the surface on. However, some of these professional tips and insights should help to make mealtimes more enjoyable and less stressful. You might also find our comprehensive guide to fussy eaters here helpful.
Want to get involved and show your support? This year NAS celebrates its 60th anniversary, and is hosting a Super 60 Challenge for World Autism Acceptance Week, you can find out more and sign up here - https://www.autism.org.uk
This feature does not constitute medical advice, we advise speaking to a professional caregiver, and visiting nhs.uk, if you have any concerns or worries about your child’s eating behaviour.