5 strategies to help children with autism and feeding difficulties
By Amanda Regan, CHOC clinical dietitian
Picky eating is something often seen in children as they grow and explore new foods, but research shows that children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) can be five times more likely to develop feeding difficulties. This is often caused by sensory processing difficulties, which can cause a child to be sensitive to different tastes, textures, smells, appearances and even temperatures of food. Many children with ASD also tend to prefer foods that are processed and high in carbohydrates, rather than fruits and vegetables. Kids with ASD may also have a hard time focusing during mealtimes, causing them to consume inadequate amounts of calories and nutrients.
Managing these types of feeding difficulties can feel overwhelming for any parent. However, it is important to stay calm and make sure mealtimes don’t turn into a battle ground. If you have a child or loved one with ASD, here are some strategies that you can use.
Rule out medical problems
Sometimes children may refuse foods because they’re struggling with another condition, such as food allergies or constipation. If your child has extreme food selectivity, it is important to seek advice from your pediatrician to rule out any other medical conditions. Your pediatrician can also help refer you to any other services your child may need, such as feeding therapy, a GI specialist, or a dietitian.
Take small steps
Taking baby steps to introducing new foods can make a huge difference. You can start this by familiarizing your child with new foods even outside the kitchen. Try teaching your child about the new food or go to the grocery store together to buy it. Later, you can start to ask your child to take small steps to eating it by smelling, licking, touching and finally tasting the food.
Expose and repeat
Remember, sometimes it can take 15 to 20 times before any child accepts a new food. If your child consistently refuses a new food, try to serve it in a different way. It’s also important to remember that sometimes kids just simply don’t like a certain food. If your child continues to reject a food after 15 to 20 exposure times, don’t be discouraged, and move on to offering a new food.
Something old and something new
When introducing new foods, pair them with other foods your child already enjoys. This can help your child to feel more comfortable during the meal. Your child may also want some sense of control when it comes to choosing foods. Try to allow some options, such as letting them pick which veggie they want to try, or which preferred food they want to pair with the new food.
Adding pressure to eating or force feeding can make mealtimes even more stressful for you and your child. Try to maintain a positive atmosphere during meals. Children with ASD may need extra time to expand their diet variety. This means it is important to be patient and allow your child to take bites of new foods at their own pace.