How to Help your Child with Autism Overcome Picky Eating
Picky eating is a common challenge that parents face, but it can be particularly prevalent among individuals with autism spectrum disorder (ASD).
The relationship between autism and picky eating is complex and multifaceted. Learning to recognise that there are individual underlying factors that influence your child's food selectivity is an important first step.
Below are some practical strategies which may help manage and expand food preferences for individuals with picky eating behaviour.
Are Austistic Toddlers Picky Eaters?
But first, lets address this common question. Every child has their own individual preferences. However, children with autism are more likely to face distress around mealtimes. According to Henry Ford Health, between 50% and 89% of kids with autism have some food selectivity.
Many children with autism experience heightened sensory sensitivities, including taste, texture, smell, and even the visual aspects of food. These sensitivities can make certain foods overwhelming or aversive, leading to a limited range of preferred foods. So, it's not just about being "fussy"; it's about how their sensory system interprets food.
Strategies for Managing Picky Eating in Autism:
Now, let's dive into some practical tips and helpful hacks to make mealtimes a little easier for both you and your child:
Understand Sensory Preferences: Observe your child's sensory preferences and aversions. Notice the textures, tastes, and smells they enjoy or find challenging. This knowledge will guide you in introducing new foods gradually, starting with similar sensory profiles.
- Autism and food obsessions : According to the National Autistic Society (NAS), many autistic people have obsessions. This could be a particular toy, an intense interest in a subject, or becoming attached to certain objects, for instance. But these obsessions and interests can be used as a teatime tool. According to NAS, you could “use a special interest to encourage them to eat more volume or variety, eg 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.
3. Make Food Fun and Engaging: Create a positive and enjoyable mealtime environment. Use colorful plates, utensils, and food presentations to make meals visually appealing. Get creative with fun-shaped sandwiches, fruit kebabs, or vegetable art. The more engaging the meal, the more likely your child will be willing to explore new foods.
4. Offer Choices and Involvement: Give your child a sense of control by offering limited but acceptable choices. Let them decide between two vegetables or pick their favorite fruit for a snack. Involving them in age-appropriate tasks, such as washing fruits or stirring ingredients, can also increase their engagement and curiosity towards food.
5. Gradual Exposure and Desensitisation: Introduce new foods gradually and repeatedly. Start by placing small amounts of the new food on their plate or offering a bite-sized portion for them to explore. Over time, increase the exposure and encourage them to interact with the food, even if it's just touching or smelling it.
6. Sneak in Nutrients: If your child is resistant to certain foods, try sneaking in nutrients through creative means. For example, blend vegetables into sauces, soups, or smoothies to incorporate essential nutrients without overwhelming their senses. These "hidden" nutrients can support their overall health and well-being.
7. Seek Support and Guidance: Connect with other parents who have children with autism or join support groups. Sharing experiences, advice, and hacks can be incredibly helpful and reassuring.
8. Routines are beneficial: All children, especially those on the autism spectrum, benefit from routines. Those in the autism community often rely on routines and predictability to feel safe and comfortable. Changes in their eating habits, such as introducing new foods, can disrupt their established routines and create anxiety. Keeping this in mind can help us approach mealtimes with empathy and understanding.
9. Transitions can be challenging: Autism is often characterised by difficulties with flexibility and transitions. This 'rigidity' can extend to food choices, with children preferring familiarity and resisting any changes to their established preferences. It's essential to approach food transitions gradually and with understanding and patience.
Impact of Picky Eating on Children with Autism
If you're concerned about your child's eating habits, please seek support from a professional caregiver, as this may impact their overall wellbeing.
Picky eating may also impact social interactions and shared meals. It may be disheartening when your child feels isolated or excluded during social gatherings. Encouraging a positive and inclusive environment can help your child feel more comfortable and accepted. You may also want to try fun ways to make the dinner table a stress-free and enjoyable place for your child to be, perhaps using a Track Plate, or another fun mealtime accessory.
The challenges associated with picky eating can contribute to increased stress and anxiety for both you and your child. Remember to take care of yourself and seek support from other parents who understand the journey. Together, you can find ways to alleviate stress and provide a nurturing environment for your child.
If your child struggles with mealtimes, remember to approach it with love, patience, and creativity. Unusual eating habits of autism are commonplace. By understanding the underlying factors, incorporating helpful strategies, and seeking support, you can gradually expand your child's food preferences and create a positive eating environment. Together, we can navigate this journey with empathy and celebrate every small victory along the way. And don't forget, you're doing an incredible job!