Autism And Picky Eating: How To Get A Child With Autism To Eat

If your child with autism isn’t eating or has trouble eating healthy, follow the tips below.

steven zauderer
Steven Zauderer
September 20, 2023
min read

12 Tips To Get A Child With Autism To Eat

Here are some tips to help a child with autism eat better:

  • Introduce things slowly - They could refuse the food from simply being overwhelmed, needing more time to adjust to things slowly, like a single type of food set on a small plate away from the course that they typically eat.
  • Use strategy - If they respond negatively and positively to colors, parents can try foods that are similar in shape and hue, such as baby carrots and cheese puffs.
  • No trickery - Autistic kids tend to respond negatively when parents attempt to hide things in their food.
  • Give them options - Parents can place certain foods on the table and allow them to pick one that looks interesting.
  • Eat in front of them - If someone they trust tries the food, it might motivate them to give it a try as well.
  • Make up a story - Stories involving the food could excite them in trying it out, one that revolves around the food being rare or something an important person ate is one idea.
  • Praise all the way - Even if they manage to pick up a utensil and get the food close to their mouth, let praise follow. This is recommended to be done with every major step.
  • Try out feeding therapy - If things aren't working out, parents can seek out feeding therapy. This might be offered at an ABA center or with a child healthcare provider.
  • Separate the food one by one - Since some children with ASD don't like two different foods to touch, they may attempt to eat it when they're separated.
  • Offer them a reward - Show them the reward they get for eating food they haven't tried before. Ice cream, a cookie, or even a new toy are ideal.
  • Gamify dinnertime - Parents can turn dinner into a game, using made-up flashcards to indicate who eats what when the cards are flipped over.
  • Give them single foods - Give them food on separate plates, where nothing else lies beside them but one single item. Once that item's eaten, another item on a different plate can follow.
  • Let them pick online - Allowing them to see different foods shown in videos and in photos could raise their interest and get them to eat new things.

Autism And Picky Eating

It's usual for children with autism to have issues with eating food. It can cause difficulty getting them to enjoy healthy foods and also cause much frustration during breakfast and dinner.

To do away with picky eating habits, one major step is to have a physician check for stomach and intestinal issues. This is a common problem for autistic people and might be the root of someone's child not eating much during mealtime.

Autism And Picky Eating

Children harboring autism usually experience various problems with food consumption. They might like foods that have a specific texture when placed in their mouth while refusing others they think are uncomfortable.

Many enjoy crunchy foods like cereal and detest softer variations.

Children that do eat soft foods might grow to have a jar that's atrophied, making eating much harder to do, depending on what's served.

In this scenario, something as common as fried chicken could cause exhaustion around the sides of their mouth from jaw pain. Being still and not fidgeting around is another problem that can prevent them from eating correctly.

To better assist children that have autism in becoming better eaters, parents and guardians should begin by picking a single goal that they want to achieve.

what parents should do to help children with autism eat better

These typically fall along the lines of boosting the number of single foods that they'll try out, or the amount eaten during every meal. Another could be just to get them to sit at the table for longer than they currently do.

All people that stay with a child with autism, or even their teachers at school, can assist in this goal. Parents are suggested to speak with people at their child's school for assistance. Most would be happy to help in getting them to try new food options.

This isn't a short process, so parents shouldn't try and rush through it, hoping that things would improve for them overnight.

Baby steps are critical, as are plenty of praise as is taught in ABA sessions. In this situation, praise should immediately follow right after they begin to chew on the food and attempt to keep it down.

Yet if the plan revolves around getting them to sit down at the table for a specified amount of time, they can be praised for that also.

Time should be doubled, if at all possible. For example, if they're willing to sit down for 10 minutes to eat something, shoot for another 10 while continuing to give them praise. For every bite that's taken by them, parents can cheerlead them along until the plate is all done.

Under this circumstance, their favorite snack as a reward is a great way to motivate them to take part in the same behavior at the table from that point forward. This might not work as fast as described, but with a bit of patience, it's very possible to carry it out with much success.

Due to unfortunate circumstances that they have no control over, change is sometimes very hard for people on the spectrum. It can bring about unwanted feelings of stress, anxiety, and mood changes. Because of this, tantrums are known to spring up when changing the food that they eat.

But ignoring the tantrums when they do start is the best way to show them how to overcome their feelings. Only when the tantrum resorts to self-harm should the things that caused it to be avoided, as there are therapists better equipped to deal with such issues.

The Cause

Most of the traits that are common among kids with ASD can heavily play into the kinds of foods they'll tolerate.

Children on the spectrum are susceptible to a multitude of health issues that can cause strain on their appetites, narrowing down their tolerance for what they enjoy eating.

It's useful for parents to understand every possibility that can arise from their lack of eating, and how to better focus on methods to treat and manage their behavior at the table.

Many parents that have a child are familiar with the term interoception.

It's when one can notice a different message that the brain sends to the body concerning things that are needed, like warmth when it's cold outside, fluids when the body's hot and dehydrated, and food when hunger begins. Studies show that a lack of interoception can impact someone with autism's ability to react to hunger.

Yet for children with autism, this might appear as if their stomachs aren't filled and there's too little blood sugar. They might not feel their stomach rumbling or the lack of energy.

Little to no intervention with eating isn't likely to cause kids to be choosy about the meals they're willing to consume, yet it can show why they aren't interested in eating what's given to them.

Sensory Problems

There are children with autism that will eat only a specific thing, like white rice.

They may choose what foods are like by the way they look, their color, and their texture. All kids, neurotypical and all, have difficulty in making preferences with some food items. But being sensitive to different smell flavors is a common feature for autistic children that carry into their adult life.

Autistic kids will show a great preference for items that make them feel a specific way when they are chewed upon. Some life creamier foods, including yogurt, ice cream, soup, and pudding. Yet some will enjoy only things that have a crunch to them.

The Solution

Behaviors that are common in autism might factor into them not eating right. Many of them, for instance, will make up stringent rules about how they eat food.

They might like to eat in a particular order, first starting with one thing and moving on to the next. Some won't even eat other foods when they touch others on a plate. They may insist on specific things being placed in smaller plates or bowls. And if any of the rules they've set for themselves are in any way broken, panic and upset could follow.

During mealtimes, there are kids on the spectrum that behave themselves dangerously.

Some throw extreme tantrums and possibly the silverware they're holding.

When pushed to try and eat something new by putting it in their mouth, they could end up spitting it out in disgust. Others would stand and run around the table in a circle from not having the patience to stand in place for longer than a couple of minutes.

To help them better in eating when they engage in these ways, more food could be offered up, though this should be done after parents have followed up with their child's pediatrician and psychiatrist. They can give helpful tips in preparation also.

Fussy Eating Habits: Why They Happen in Autistic Children And Teens

The most common cause of poor eating habits in autistic children is gastrointestinal problems.

why fussy eating habits happen

Working On Fussy Eating Habits In Children With Autism

Kids with autism that won't eat specific foods refuse them for the way they smell, or a certain flavor might be unpleasant to them.

Working On Fussy Eating Habits In Children With Autism

In this sense, they can be thought of as brutally honest during mealtime, where instead of gobbling down food as it's presented to them, they'll quickly show when they don't like something.

However, why they don't like it, to begin with, might be hard to find out, especially if the child doesn't talk very much or is nonverbal. More variety in meals and clever ways of presenting them to them can go a long way in getting them to eat more.

How To Encourage Healthy Diets For Your Child With Autism

Encouragement can come through them understanding more about the food they eat.

Presenting things separately, and not rushing them along is proven to get them to eat. Their favorite foods could be prepared with something healthier. Plant-based alternatives might work for some.

steven zauderer

CEO of CrossRiverTherapy - a national ABA therapy company based in the USA.

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