Autism and fussy eaters: strategies for parents
If you’re the parent of a child on the autism spectrum, there’s every chance you’ve heard plenty of well-intentioned, but unhelpful advice when it comes to picky eating.
Do any of these comments sound familiar?
“She’ll eat if she’s hungry enough.”
“Give him to me for a week. I’ll get him to eat.”
“She doesn’t have a problem eating when it’s French fries.”
‘Capsicum. Can pick out the tiniest slither’
Writer Shanell Mouland expressed the frustration of dealing with such comments in her column Autism and Food Aversion. After posting the column on Amaze’s Facebook page, we received comments including:
“I am so sick of people looking at me in horror as my child protests and won’t eat her dinner if it’s something she’s not familiar with”.
“If only I had a dollar for every time Ive been told to make him sit there until he eats the vegetables/fruit/casserole. Or, ‘if he doesnt eat what you dish up he should go without’. He would go a week with no food if I did that. In fact when he was younger I tried to bribe him to try different foods but he just vomits it up, if he gets it down at all”.
“My non verbal autistic son, 6, eats only a handful of foods, due to his sensory issues.I do sensory therapy at home by letting him touch the foods without the expectations he has to put it in his mouth, and just play with it. Then the next time he might try it. It’s a very slow process but I’ve found it is successful sometimes”.
“Capsicum. Cannot stand it. Can pick out the tiniest slither, it sends me into overload’.
“My daughter is a yellow/beige food lover. We are trying to expand her choices, but not so much luck. She also has the ‘no food can touch another’ and we have to have an even amount of each on the plate. So 6 nuggets is great but 5 is a meltdown.”
Many who are eager to offer advice know nothing about autism
The reality, as pointed out by Mouland, is that many who are eager to offer advice know little, or nothing, about autism and food aversion.
“As you may already know, autism is a spectrum, meaning each person affected is affected in their own way,” Mouland says.
“My daughter’s version of food aversion may differ from another child’s.”
Following is information from Raising Children Network on autism, food and diets.
- Fussy eating habits and autism spectrum disorder
- Overeating habits and autism spectrum disorder
- Non-food eating habits
- Diet as a treatment for autism spectrum disorder
Fussy eating habits and autism
Some children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) are fussy eaters and will eat only a limited range of food.
If your child’s diet is severely limited – for example, they eat only mushy foods – they might not be getting all the nutrients they need. It’s a good idea to talk to your GP or a dietitian about supplementing your child’s diet.
Understanding your child’s fussy eating habits
The first step in managing your child’s eating habits is working out why your child is fussy about food.
See your GP or paediatrician to start with, to rule out any gastrointestinal problems such as food intolerances.
If tummy problems aren’t the cause, the fussy eating might be because your child:
- has sensory sensitivities and prefers food with particular textures
- likes routines and wants the same food at the same time every day
- finds it hard to try new experiences, including eating new food
- has become preoccupied with a particular type of food.
Encouraging a varied diet
Try using foods with textures your child likes. For example, if your child doesn’t like soft foods and will eat only crunchy foods, offer raw vegetables such as carrots, rather than cooked vegetables.
Offering a choice between two foods can give your child a sense of control. This can be helpful for children who find change difficult.
At the supermarket, let your child choose some food. They might pick a food you wouldn’t have expected – perhaps it looks interesting or smells good. You could try cooking it in different ways together.
Disguising foods can help your child eat a more varied diet. You could try chopping new food into tiny pieces and mixing it into something your child loves, like pasta or pizza.
If your child finds change difficult, they might take a while to get familiar and comfortable with a new food.
Let your child sniff or lick a new food to get used to the look, feel and smell of it. You might need to let them do this over several meals before they’re willing to take a bite.
If you show your child how much you or a sibling enjoy a particular food, over time they might be willing to give it a try.
This method works particularly well for younger children who have an older sibling they look up to or copy naturally.
Praise your child when they try a new food – for example, ‘It’s great that you tried those carrots’.
You could reward them with a favourite activity, but be mindful that in the longer term you’re aiming to get your child eating a variety of food because they want to, not just because they’ll get a reward. A reward chart might help.
Strategies to avoid
There are some things that don’t work with fussy eating habits:
- Making your child eat a new food can make things worse, and your child might refuse to eat altogether.
- Making a separate meal for your child will teach them that they’ll get a special meal for themselves if they carry on being fussy.
- Ignoring your child’s fussy eating doesn’t work and your child is likely to keep being fussy.
- Punishing your child – for example, by taking away something they like – generally doesn’t work. It’s better to reward the eating behaviour you want to see – for example, by giving your child a reward for tasting a new food. This might be a sticker or extra time doing a favourite activity.