autism food aversion

Picky eating and food aversions are common challenges among autistic individuals. These difficulties can make it challenging for parents and caregivers to ensure a healthy and varied diet for their loved ones. 

Children on the autism spectrum often struggle with eating, which can lead to conflicts during mealtimes. They may exhibit strong preferences for certain types of food or have a limited range of foods they are willing to eat. This can result in a narrow and unbalanced diet, potentially compromising their nutritional intake.

Picky eating in autism can present various challenges, including mealtime tantrums, ritualistic eating behaviors, and extremely narrow food selections. These challenges can impact the overall well-being and quality of life of autistic individuals and their families.

Luckily, we’ve prepared some effective tips that can help you out.

autism food aversion

Link Between Autism and Food Aversions

Research has shown a significant link between autism and food aversions

A recent review of scientific studies found that children with autism are five times more likely to have mealtime challenges, such as narrow food selections and ritualistic eating behaviors. 

Additionally, approximately 50% of children with autism have food selectivity, a condition where they exhibit extreme preferences or limited acceptance of certain foods.

Understanding this link is crucial in addressing food aversions in autism and developing effective strategies to expand the dietary repertoire of individuals with autism.

Sensory Factors in Food Aversion

Sensory sensitivities play a significant role in food aversion among individuals with autism. Many children with autism have sensory preferences for certain types of food, such as crunchy or soft foods. These preferences can limit the variety of foods they are willing to eat.

For example, individuals who prefer soft foods may have weak jaw muscles, making it unpleasant to eat chewier food. Sensory processing disorder (SPD) is often associated with autism and can contribute to food aversions. 

Research indicates that 69% to 95% of children with autism are affected by a sensory disorder, which can make eating at the dinner table overwhelming and lead to feeding problems and sensory overload.

Understanding the sensory factors involved allows parents, caregivers, and healthcare professionals to develop strategies that take into account the specific sensory preferences and challenges of individuals with autism.

autism food aversion

How to Address Picky Eating Behavior

Addressing food aversion in individuals with autism requires a comprehensive approach to help expand their diet and promote healthier eating habits

Here are some key strategies and interventions that could work:

Medical Evaluation and Intervention

The first step in addressing food aversion in individuals with autism is to have a medical evaluation to rule out any underlying medical issues that may be contributing to their picky eating habits. 

It is important to consult with a healthcare professional, such as a pediatrician or gastroenterologist, to assess for any gastrointestinal problems or sensory sensitivities that may be causing discomfort during meals.

Once any medical issues have been addressed, medical intervention may be necessary in some cases. This can include the use of medications or supplements to support digestion or manage any specific nutritional deficiencies. 

It is important to work closely with a healthcare professional to determine the appropriate intervention based on the individual’s specific needs.

autism food aversion

Expanding the Diet

Expanding the diet of individuals with autism requires patience, consistency, and a variety of strategies. Here are several strategies that can be helpful in this process:

  1. Rule out medical problems – Ensure that any underlying medical issues have been addressed before focusing on expanding the diet.
  2. Stay calm – Create a calm and positive eating environment to reduce anxiety and stress during mealtimes.
  3. Take steps towards tasting – Gradually introduce new foods by starting with small tastes or nibbles.
  4. Tune into textures – Consider the texture preferences of the individual and gradually introduce new textures to expand their acceptance of different foods.
  5. Play with new food – Encourage sensory exploration by allowing the individual to touch, smell, and play with new foods without the pressure to eat them.
  6. Offer choices and control – Provide choices and involve the individual in meal planning and preparation to increase their sense of control and engagement.
  7. Be careful with rewards – Use rewards sparingly and avoid using food as a reward to prevent reinforcing unhealthy eating habits.

These strategies can be adjusted based on the individual’s specific needs and comfort level.

Occupational Therapy

Occupational therapy can also play a crucial role in addressing food aversion in individuals with autism. Occupational therapists specialize in sensory integration and can help individuals develop strategies to manage sensory sensitivities related to eating. 

They can provide sensory-based interventions, such as desensitization techniques, to gradually increase tolerance to different food textures, tastes, and smells.

autism food aversion

By incorporating the expertise of occupational therapists into the treatment plan, individuals with autism can receive targeted support to overcome their food aversions and expand their range of accepted foods.

Treatment Approaches for Food Aversion

In some cases, a combination of multidisciplinary strategies, behavioral interventions, and nutritional supplements is necessary to expand an autistic individual’s diet and improve their overall nutritional status.

Let’s look at each of these approaches in further detail.

Multidisciplinary Approach

A multidisciplinary approach involving different professionals and services is often recommended for the treatment of food aversion in individuals with autism. 

This approach may include the collaboration of healthcare professionals such as pediatricians, dietitians, occupational therapists, and behavioral therapists. By working together, these professionals can develop a comprehensive treatment plan tailored to the individual’s specific needs.

The multidisciplinary approach allows for a holistic assessment of the individual, taking into account their medical history, sensory sensitivities, behavioral patterns, and nutritional requirements. It enables the development of personalized strategies to address the underlying causes of food aversion and promote positive eating behaviors.

Behavioral Interventions

Behavioral interventions play a crucial role in addressing food aversion in individuals with autism. These interventions focus on modifying behaviors and responses related to food and eating. 

Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) is a commonly used behavioral therapy that can help individuals with autism develop new food preferences and expand their food repertoire.

ABA techniques such as systematic desensitization, food chaining, and positive reinforcement are often employed to gradually expose individuals to new foods, textures, and flavors. The goal is to reduce anxiety and resistance associated with eating and to create positive associations with previously aversive foods.

The use of visual supports, social stories, and structured mealtime routines can also be beneficial in helping individuals with autism feel more comfortable and relaxed during mealtime. 

These strategies provide predictability and structure, reducing sensory overload and anxiety that may be associated with food aversion.

Nutritional Supplements

In some cases, individuals with autism may have specific nutrient deficiencies or may struggle to meet their nutritional needs due to food aversion. In such situations, nutritional supplements can be considered as part of the treatment approach. 

It is important to consult with a healthcare professional or a registered dietitian to determine the specific nutrient needs and appropriate supplementation for each individual.

Supplements such as multivitamins and mineral preparations can help bridge nutritional gaps and ensure that individuals with autism are receiving adequate nutrients. 

Omega-3 fatty acids, which are found in fish oil supplements, have also shown promise in supporting cognitive function and reducing behavioral symptoms in individuals with autism.

It is important to note that nutritional supplements should not replace a varied and balanced diet. They should be used as a complement to a well-rounded eating plan and under the guidance of a healthcare professional.

autism food aversion

Supporting Parents and Caregivers

Supporting parents and caregivers is vital in managing food aversion in individuals with autism. 

Understanding the challenges and seeking guidance from professionals can make a significant difference. Resources such as support groups, online forums, and educational materials can provide valuable insights, strategies, and emotional support for those caring for individuals with autism and food aversion. 

Additionally, working closely with healthcare professionals, including registered dietitians and occupational therapists, can help develop personalized plans to address food aversion and improve the overall well-being of individuals with autism.

Promising research initiatives and dedicated organizations are actively working towards finding effective solutions for food aversion in individuals with autism. 

By staying informed, accessing available resources, and seeking support, parents and caregivers can take steps toward improving the relationship between individuals with autism and food.


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