10 Tips to Improve Your Autistic Child’s Picky Eating Habits

Navigating picky eating is a challenge many parents face, but when you add autism to the mix, the stakes get even higher.  Autistic children  often face challenges with eating, making it tough to maintain a balanced diet and leading to mealtime conflicts. They might prefer specific textures, like crunchy or soft foods, due to sensory sensitivities. Some may struggle with chewier foods due to weak jaw muscles. Additionally, sitting still and behaving safely during meals can be difficult for them.

Shockingly, a 2019 study found that a staggering 70% of children diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) struggle with food aversions.

In children with a diagnosis of autism showing unusual eating habits, 25% exhibited three or more such behaviours, compared to none in those with other “disorders” or typical development.

In this study, the top eating behaviours in autism included limited food preferences (88%), hypersensitivity to food textures (46%), exclusive brand loyalty in food choices (27%), pocketing food without swallowing (19%), and pica, or eating non-food items like paper (12%).

My son would only eat McDonalds chicken nuggets for every meal. He would scream the house down if he didn’t get them for every meal. 

Is your child avoiding vibrant colours, sticking to beige foods like pasta and chicken nuggets, or resisting certain textures? This limited diet can spark concerns about nutrition and turn mealtimes into stress-filled events.

To help an autistic child become less picky with food, set a clear goal: expanding the variety or quantity of foods they eat, or lengthening mealtime. Share this goal with everyone at home and school.

Take small steps and offer lots of praise. Start with tiny tastes of new foods and celebrate each bite. If the goal is a 10-minute mealtime, commend them for that without pushing for more. Progress may be slow (painfully slow at times), but consistency and perseverance pays off.

Expect resistance; change is tough for many autistic kids. Ignoring tantrums can help reduce them. Take action only when the child’s behavior is dangerous, unless they pose a safety risk, intervening only when necessary.

So, how can you help your child with autism embrace a more varied and nutritious diet? Here are ten actionable tips to make mealtimes less of a battle:

1. Rule Out Medical Issues

Autistic children frequently experience gastrointestinal issues more than their neurotypical peers. Be vigilant for symptoms such as diarrhea, stomach pain, constipation, difficulty swallowing, or acid reflux. If your child avoids certain foods, it could be due to physical discomfort, although communicating this can be challenging for some autistic children. Consulting with your child’s doctor can help pinpoint the foods causing discomfort and devise an appropriate management plan.

2. Wind Down Before Dinner

Reduce mealtime stress by incorporating relaxation activities before eating. Whether it’s reading a book, watching a favourite show, or playing with toys, a calm approach can make your child more open to trying new foods.

3. Offer Options

Introduce new foods gradually alongside familiar favourites. Start with small portions—like a piece of broccoli next to their chicken nuggets. Over time, they may become more willing to explore new flavours. Some autistic people may feel hesitant about trying new things. Encourage your child to explore unfamiliar foods by observing them, feeling their texture, and smelling their aroma. When they feel comfortable, they might start by giving the food a small kiss or licking it before taking a bite. Mixing a new food with one of their favourites can also make the experience more enjoyable.

4. Take Baby Steps

Patience is key. Encourage your child to touch, smell, and eventually taste new foods at their own pace. Celebrate small victories along the way. Over time, it’s crucial to encourage and commend your child’s openness to trying new foods and flexibility with eating. However, using straightforward bribes can have unintended consequences. While your child might consume the food, they won’t necessarily develop a genuine appreciation for it or grasp the significance of maintaining a balanced diet, which is ultimately the aim. Allow desserts and treats to be included in meals and snacks, but avoid using them as incentives to persuade your child to eat specific foods, like carrots.

5. Keep Trying

Persistence pays off. Even if your child rejects a new food initially, continue offering it for at least two weeks. Remember, repetition can be comforting for autistic children. 

6. Don’t Push

Avoid turning mealtimes into a battleground. Stay patient and calm, focusing on progress rather than perfection. Allow your child the time they need to feel comfortable trying new foods. Some kids need to try a new food over a dozen times before they decide to eat it without any complaints. For children with sensitivities related to autism, this process might take even longer. It’s important to be patient while your child gets familiar with and tastes new foods. If after many attempts your child still doesn’t like a certain food, they might just not be a fan of it. In that case, you could try introducing a different food. Remember, mealtime shouldn’t turn into a family conflict. Instead, try to make it fun and creative!

7. Add Some Fun

Turn mealtime into a fun adventure by adding a playful twist. Try crafting colourful vegetable art or painting plates with sauces to make dining a delightful experience rather than a daunting task. Playing with food can ease mealtime anxieties and boost familiarity with new flavours. How about making artistic designs with pasta sauce or crafting amusing faces on pizza with veggies? Get creative and use cookie cutters to shape sandwiches into fun forms. As you dive into these imaginative activities, let your child see you relishing and tasting the food to spark their curiosity and enhance their enjoyment.

8. Consider Textures

Texture sensitivity can be a barrier to trying new foods. Experiment with different preparations, like blending or mashing, to make foods more palatable for your child.
Autistic individuals frequently experience hypersensitivity to textures. Therefore, it’s essential to understand that it might not be the taste of a food but its texture that triggers food aversion. A prime example is the squishy texture of a fresh tomato. To accommodate this sensitivity, consider modifying the food’s texture. For instance, you could chop the tomato into salsa or blend it into a smooth pasta sauce.

9. Limit Snack Times

Stick to a structured eating schedule to avoid constant grazing, which can diminish appetite at mealtime. Consistency and routine can be reassuring for autistic children.

10. Avoid Brand Dependence

Expand your child’s food choices by introducing new brands gradually. Start by offering alternatives alongside their preferred brand and gradually transition to new options. Remember, every child is unique, so what works for one may not work for another. Be flexible, stay patient, and celebrate small victories along the way. With time and persistence, you can help your child with autism develop a healthier relationship with food.

To find out about how I AM can offer support contact us at admin@i-am-autism.org.uk or give us a call on 0161 866 8483

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