10 Tips for Children With Autism & "Picky Eating"

Autism picky eater

Everyone has different preferences when it comes to food choices, but did you know that children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) are more likely to have selective eating behaviors and food aversions when compared to children who are non-disabled?

One study found that children with autism were 70 percent more likely to have atypical eating disorders, such as brand-specific and limited food preferences. It’s also generalized that about 50 percent of children with autism have food selectivity.

With food aversion comes specific needs and preferences at mealtimes, which can sometimes be challenging to follow. Use this post to understand food aversion and help your child have less stressful mealtimes. 

Why Does My Child Have Food Aversions?

Food aversion stems from sensory sensitivities in children with autism, usually related to Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD). “Picky eating” occurs when your child is triggered by a food’s texture, smell, temperature, taste, or color. 

Usually, with food aversion, your child may refuse to eat certain foods due to their sensitivity. For whichever reason their senses are being “overloaded” or “disturbed” by a particular type of food, your child might become very selective about which foods they eat.

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While healthcare professionals and researchers still don’t know the real cause behind food aversion– other than its relation to SPD– studies do show that 69% to 95% of children with autism are affected by a sensory disorder.

If your child is experiencing feeding issues or food aversion, they may display the following symptoms:

  • Refusal to try new foods.
  • Feeding issues.
  • Avoidance of certain foods.
  • Eating issues.
  • Gagging at the sight, touch, or smell of specific foods.
  • Tantrums at mealtimes.
  • Inability to ignore food items that they’re sensitive to.
  • Constipation

What Does Sensory Processing Disorder Feel Like?

You're not alone if you’re wondering why your child with ASD has such intense reactions to food. People living with SPD have attempted to teach others what it’s like.

Eating at the dinner table can be an overwhelming situation for those with ASD, especially children, and when they’re overwhelmed, it may lead to feeding problems and sensory overloads.

Signs of a sensory overload include:

  • Anxiety
  • Anger or frustration.
  • Irritability
  • Inability to sleep.
  • Panic attacks.
  • General stress.
  • Inability to focus on anything but the thing causing the sensory overload.

Unlike children who don't have autism, it might be impossible for your child’s brain to switch off or ignore the item that sent them into a sensory overload.

10 Tips for Picky Eaters

It can be upsetting to you and your child’s everyday life when the selection of food they will eat is so narrow, but it’s essential to remain calm and help them find a routine that works for them. Use these 10 tips to help your child with their selective eating habits.

1. Start small.

Start by just having a meal with your child. Sit wherever your family typically sits to eat together and see if you can get your child to stay for the duration of the meal. Then, if all is going well, see if you can move on to adding new foods to the table. 

Let your child know they don’t have to try the new food right away; If they can stay at the table while the food is present– especially if it’s triggering for them– this may be a step in the right direction. If your child eats while at the table, that’s even better.

2. Stay calm.

When your child is having a sensory overload or tantrum at the table (or wherever you’re eating), it can be tough to keep your cool, especially if your child is newly learning they’re sensitive to certain foods. 

But calmness is critical to your child’s peace. Your calm demeanor teaches your child to be calm and helps their minds turn off their fight-flight-freeze response. This, in turn, allows them to think more rationally, learn how to behave appropriately, and trust you more.

3. Try new foods.

Sure, it may take a long time for your child to become comfortable and calm enough to try new foods, but it’s worth it when you have a breakthrough! 

Plus, you never know what can be added to your child’s diet. Keep in mind that an aversion could be caused by anything, from the texture to the color of the food, so keep trying new foods. 

4. Be hyper-aware.

Just like your child might be hyper-aware of the food surrounding them, you should try to be aware of what they’re sensitive to. 

Take note of which foods your child has an aversion to and try to notice what it was about the food they may not have liked– although this might not always be communicated or noticeable. This way, you can adjust to your child’s food preferences as you go along.

5. Talk to a professional.

If your child struggles to adjust to food aversions, see a healthcare provider or specialized therapist at a children’s hospital. 

Some therapists, such as Sensory Integration (SI) therapists, specialize in SPD, and may be able to help your child overcome some sensory issues. For example, SI uses movement activities, skin brushing, and bodywork to help with SPD by “rewiring” the brain to respond to sensory input appropriately.

6. Keep a list of "safe" foods.

When have lists not come in handy? Keeping a list of your child’s specific food preferences or “safe” foods somewhere can be helpful for days or nights when your schedule is too busy to take time to experiment. A list also helps when you’re going out to eat or when a caregiver or babysitter is helping your child.

Some common “safe” foods for children who have ASD include chicken nuggets and pasta, but every child’s preferences are different.

7. Be patient.

Children usually need to eat food many times before deciding if they like it, and those with food aversion can take even longer to decide what they prefer. This may require a lot of patience on your end as you attempt to give certain foods to your child repeatedly, but try to be as patient as possible. 

It will probably cause your child less stress in the long run if they know what they like and what they don’t, and it could help build more trust between you.

8. Model, model, model!

Young children learn how to behave from those around them. They are basically human-sized sponges soaking up everything! From birth to around six years old, your child is soaking up tons of information. So much, in fact, that Maria Montessori called this stage the “absorbent mind.” 

Your child observes everything you do, even after six years old, so try to model good behavior to impact their behavior positively. For example, when having meals together, stay calm, try new foods, and approach eating with a curious demeanor. 

9. Offer choices.

It can be frustrating and confusing when your child has food aversions to so much of the food you or your family might typically eat. It can also take up a lot of time– you have to go shopping, try new recipes, cook the food, and then use trial-and-error to see if your child will enjoy or reject it. But don’t give up! 

Always try to offer a variety of foods for your child to taste, touch, or smell. For instance, if you discover your child likes to eat pears but dislikes bananas, it may be the texture, so offer an apple. Likewise, if your child devours macaroni with a fork but won’t touch a burger, it may be that they don’t want to get their hands messy, so try another utensil food. The choices are endless.

10. Get cooking!

If your child is old enough, it may be helpful to cook with them so they have a designated time (outside of valuable sensory play) to experiment with different foods. 

Touch and texture are a massive part of helping them discover what they have an aversion to and what they want to eat. Cooking together also creates a time to bond without the stress of your child knowing they have to try and eat.

Family cooking with autismFamily cooking with autism

How Aeroflow Urology Can Help

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Information provided on the Aeroflow Urology website is not intended as a substitute for medical advice or care from a healthcare professional. Aeroflow recommends consulting your healthcare provider if you are experiencing medical issues relating to incontinence.