Parents of children with autism are familiar with the dreaded mealtime negotiations, so much so that within neurodivergent parent circles, the standing joke is that chicken McNuggets are the universal sign of autism in children.
All laughter aside, food sensitivity is a genuine problem for many families. Let’s explore how to get a child with autism to eat and make mealtime enjoyable for the entire family.
Common Challenges of Mealtime With a Child with Autism
When raising kids on the spectrum, you often face unique challenges regarding mealtime. These can range from sensory and behavioral issues to health conditions that affect their eating habits. Some common difficulties encountered include:
- Unfamiliarity or dislike of different types or textures of food
- Difficulty chewing or swallowing food
- Struggling to sit through a family dinner
- Resistance to trying new foods
- Refusal to eat previously enjoyed dishes
- Not wanting to touch certain foods or utensils
- Sensory sensitivities make them avoid specific smells, sights, tastes, and textures
- Behavioral issues such as distress or tantrums
In addition to the behaviors and challenges listed above, children with autism often have health conditions that complicate the problem of food avoidance, such as:
- Acid Reflux
- Eosinophilic Esophagitis
Another disorder children with autism face that is not as widely known is Avoidant/Restrictive Food Intake Disorder, which we’ll explain next.
Avoidant/Restrictive Food Intake Disorder (ARFID)
As if worrying about acid reflux and constipation weren’t enough, your child on the spectrum may also be susceptible to ARFID. This little-known disorder is widespread in children with ASD.
ARFID is very similar to anorexia nervosa, which involves restricting the quantity and types of food consumed. The difference is that those affected by ARFID don’t have any issues or anxieties about their body shape or size, nor do they worry about becoming fat.
Physical Development Delays
Children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) often have difficulty eating because the muscles used for biting, chewing, and swallowing might be weak or underdeveloped.
This can make it hard for them to eat foods that require a lot of chewing, such as meat. If this is happening to your child, there are some signs you may notice:
- Slower than the average eating rate
- Gagging or frequently coughing while eating
- Excess drooling or letting food fall out of their mouth
- Spitting up
If you see any of these signs when your child eats, it may be time to talk to their doctor about possible physical development delays and how they might affect their eating habits.
Your doctor can recommend tips to help make mealtimes less stressful for you and your kiddo!
Tips to Help Your Child With Autism Eat
Remember that these tips are not a one-size-fits-all solution. Every child is unique, so if one doesn’t work for you, don’t stress; just move on to the next and find out what works for your family.
Relax Before Dinner
Before a meal, it is crucial to help your child with autism reduce their stress and anxiety. Calming activities before dinner can help them become more comfortable in the eating environment.
This can include gentle stretching or yoga, soothing music, deep breathing exercises, reading stories together, or walking outdoors. Having these activities as part of your routine before meals can make your child more open to sitting down and trying different foods.
Rule Out Any Stomach Problems
Checking with your child’s doctor should always be the first line of attack when attempting to diagnose or work with food avoidance in your kiddo. This way, you can rule out any potential medical issues possibly causing discomfort or pain and prevent them from eating. For some children with autism, underlying stomach problems are the source of their food-related difficulties.
Remember that your child’s physical conditions can change over time, so make sure to keep up-to-date with regular checkups in case any new conditions develop or old conditions worsen.
Develop a Meal Schedule
Creating and sticking to a meal schedule is essential for children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). An organized, predictable routine can help alleviate stress and provide structure.
Scheduling meals help kids know what to expect, reducing anxiety around mealtimes. It also ensures that your child gets regular nutrition so they can grow and develop properly.
Slowly Add New Foods
When introducing new foods to a child with autism, patience is essential. No single right way or quick fix works for everyone, so don’t be discouraged if something doesn’t work the first time.
The key is to take your time and expose them to new items gradually. A good approach is to start by adding a small amount of the unfamiliar food into something you know your child already likes eating; this can make it easier for them to try out the new item without feeling overwhelmed.
Encourage Food Play
If your picky eater is on the spectrum, the rule of not playing with food at the table may need to be thrown out the window. Instead, encourage your child to interact with their food before they eat it.
This could involve examining its texture and smell or molding it into fun shapes and figures. The goal is to get them as interested in the food as possible, so they are encouraged to try it.
The next tip may seem impossible since kids and vegetables often don’t mix well, but there’s a good reason for our recommendation. Keep reading and keep an open mind!
Introduce Cruciferous Vegetables
Vegetables from the cruciferous family may be a beneficial addition to the diet of a child with autism. Sulforaphane, an antioxidant found in these vegetables, has been linked to positive changes in autistic behaviors.
Parents must introduce such foods gradually while providing positive reinforcement and allowing their child time to adjust. Here’s a list of possible cruciferous vegetables that you can introduce into your child’s diet:
- Brussels sprouts
- Bok choy
- Collard greens
- Mustard greens
Try not to get discouraged if your child doesn’t take to these vegetables right away, most adults struggle with these too, but the rewards will be worth it. Remember, it’s essential to focus on the food and not the behavior surrounding the food.
Focus on the Foods, Not the Behaviors
Some kids may try to avoid eating by exhibiting behaviors related to mealtime. This could be anything from refusing to sit at the table or trying to get up during the meal.
In those situations, it’s vital that you stay focused on the food and not on these behaviors – instead of punishing them or making them finish their plate, focus your energy on what they are eating and how much they’re consuming. Make sure that every bite counts and encourage even small successes.
Manage Your Expectations
It’s natural for parents to feel frustrated or even overwhelmed when their child with autism refuses food or has a tantrum at mealtime. It can be easy to forget that these behaviors are their way of expressing themselves.
Remember that your expectations for what constitutes a “normal” mealtime may need to be adjusted to accommodate the needs of your child with autism. Setting realistic goals and understanding the unique challenges you face as parents will help make mealtimes easier – and more enjoyable – for everyone involved.
Next, let’s consider the importance of involving a doctor in your mealtime process.
Talk to a Doctor Before Starting New Diets
There’s so much information from so-called internet experts that it can be easy to take advice that may not work for your child. While some parents of autistic children have had success using special diets such as gluten- or casein-free, these methods may not work for everyone and could even cause further nutritional deficiencies if done improperly.
Before you make any changes to your child’s diet, you must talk with a doctor. Your MD can suggest dietary modifications or supplements that could benefit your child.
In addition, your doctor can help you understand if there are any underlying health issues or medical conditions that could be causing difficulties with eating, so talking with them before making drastic changes – even for something as simple as changing food brands is essential. Speaking of brands…
Avoid Brand Dependencies
If possible (and we know this adds yet another task to your to-do list), try to avoid your child becoming overly dependent on any one brand of food. Instead of serving meals straight from the labeled box, take out the food and serve it differently.
Also, try switching up the brands you use for each meal, so they do not become too familiar with a particular product. Hopefully (fingers crossed), this will help them stay open-minded when trying new foods and flavors.
If it all becomes too much for you to handle, then it’s time to call in the experts for reinforcements.
Work With Experts
Working with experts is a great way to help your child with autism eat better. These caring professionals have the skills and knowledge to understand the unique needs of children with autism and can create targeted strategies for them.
Here’s a list of possible experts that may be able to help:
- Occupational therapist
- Speech-language pathologist
- Behavioral therapist
- Pediatric gastroenterologist
- Mental health professional
Last but not least, posture also plays a role in getting your little one to eat.
Support Your Child’s Posture
Some kids on the spectrum may have difficulty maintaining a comfortable and stable posture while eating. It’s important to remember that having the correct stance can help make mealtime more enjoyable for your child.
To support your child’s posture during meals, you could provide them with a supportive chair or use cushions to help maintain their balance. Consider using an adaptive utensil such as a weighted spoon or fork, which can keep their hand steady and make it easier for them to eat on their own.
With extra support, your child can enjoy mealtime without struggling to stay upright!
Mealtimes Don’t Have to Be a Battle
Mealtimes can be a battle for parents of children with autism, but they don’t have to be. Making minor adjustments to the environment, structure, and available food choices makes it possible to create an atmosphere encouraging them to eat.
This blog gave you some tried-and-true strategies to help you navigate the sometimes complicated landscape of food and food avoidance on the spectrum. It’s always important to keep researching new approaches to add to your ever-growing toolkit as you parent your unique neurodivergent child.
Acknowledge successes (no matter how small) with praise or rewards, so your kiddo learns positive behavior through reinforcement. Finally, remember that patience is key – have faith in yourself and your child’s progress!
If you are ready to work with the best ABA therapy provider in New York, New Jersey or Indiana, give us a call at (732) 402-0297. Our dedicated team is ready to help and we will treat you like family.
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