Parents often tell me that their children with Autism have food issues. They say that their children are sensitive to certain foods, and can be very picky eaters. This article addresses three reasons why children with Autism can be picky eaters, followed by suggestions on how to help your child to eat better. Of course, some children with food issues may have sensory processing challenges, so please keep that in mind as you read on.
Many children with Autism tend to be visual learners, so if the food looks different, your child thinks that it is different.
Many of your children keep eating the same foods, because they find contentment in knowing that the food is predictable, looks the same, and will taste exactly how they remembered it.
Have you ever gone to the grocery store to buy your child’s favorite cookies, only to notice that the cookie packaging had changed? There was a different picture on the front of the box. You didn’t think much about this, because you were sure the cookie was going to taste the same. However, when you got home, your child started looking through the grocery bags for his container of cookies, and couldn’t find it. You took out the new box and said, “Here is your box of cookies. It has a different cover but the cookies are the same.” Your child threw the box on the floor and had a total meltdown. Why did this happen? The packaging was different, and it looked like his predictable cookies had suddenly changed. It threw his world into complete disarray.
Did you ever go out for dinner as a family to a restaurant that you know has your child’s favorite macaroni and cheese? You put a lot of thought into choosing this restaurant because you wanted to make sure there was something for your child to eat. However, when his order of macaroni and cheese got to the table, the macaroni was shaped differently, and the cheese was cheddar instead of American cheese. The color of the cheese was the same, but the smell was slightly different. Your child started banging his head on the back of the booth because the macaroni and cheese that you promised him looked nothing like what he expected.
It is important to remember and understand that your child thrives on routine and predictability. The best way to help your child prepare for something that is different is to consistently give him different foods and introduce him to new fare at home all the time. Even though routine and structure is good for him, it is okay to create change within that structure. The structure is that you are eating lunch every day at the same time, but the change comes when you serve different types of macaroni, made with different types of cheese. The structure is that you are going to buy cookies for him at the grocery store, but at home, you can take the cookies out of the box and put them in a container or clear zip-lock bag. You can also buy different types of cookies.
Another strategy that you can try is to make the food look a little different every few times you serve it to your child. Break the snack in half, cut the sandwich up into different shapes, place the food items on different plates, or in different bowls, etc.
I used macaroni and cheese, and cookies as prime examples, because I often hear that this is what your children love. I also often hear that your children love to eat chicken nuggets, French fries, rice, potatoes, and potato chips. While these foods are okay to eat, it is important to include healthful foods in your child’s diet also, because his overall health and also his behavior is affected by the food and drink that goes into his body.—But that is a topic for another article and another day…
The smell of certain foods is enough to drive your child over the edge.
If your child sniffs everything before he eats it, this is a good indication that smell is an important factor in his food consumption. He may hold his nose indicating that the smell is gross to him, even when you think something smells delicious. He may gag at the smell of something, and even vomit. If you think that smells play a huge role in your child’s lack of desire to eat, here are some things you can try.
Play detective and start writing down all of these behaviors, so you can figure out why your child is acting a certain way towards food. You may notice a certain pattern. For example, the foods that have garlic may be nauseating to your child. This does not necessarily mean that you have to get rid of all the garlic in his food. It just means that you are going to have to work a little harder to help your child become more comfortable with the smell of it.
Of course, you do not have to make your child eat a food he really does not like. We all have certain foods that we don’t like. I, for one, dislike mushrooms—the consistency, the texture, everything about it is less than desirable to me. However, I am not going to have a meltdown if they are in my food. I just pick them out, or order food without mushrooms.
I have the ability to find solutions to problems to meet my sensory needs, but your child does not have that ability. Your child needs you to help him find solutions to his food sensitivities just as seriously as a parent would react if their child had a nut allergy. However, it is important to keep exposing your child to foods that he doesn’t like, because, unlike a nut allergy, he may one day change his mind.
Prepare your child ahead of time if you are making a food that has an ingredient that he may not like. Let him know that you are going to be cooking a food with garlic. Allow him to eat his favorite snack while you are cooking this less than desired item in the kitchen. Place the food on the dinner table at mealtime, even if he isn’t expected to eat it. You never know, one day he may try it because he has been exposed to it so many times.
Another option is to try including a minuscule amount of the undesired item in his favorite food. This can help him to work his way up slowly to eating the new food item normally.
The texture of certain foods may overwhelm your child.
Have you noticed that your child only eats mushy foods, or that his favorite foods are all crunchy? This most likely has to do with his sensory needs. Crunchy foods tend to apply pressure to our joints when we bite down on them, which may be incredibly pleasing to a sensory seeking child. On the other hand, children who are extremely sensitive to touch may despise crunchy food, and may only want to eat mashed potatoes, blended foods, or shakes.
If you are having difficulties getting your child to eat an apple because he only eats soft food, start by giving him applesauce. After a few weeks of exposing him to applesauce, get some chunky applesauce. Then start adding tiny pieces of whole apple, increasing the size and amount of whole apple gradually.
Expose your child to new foods all the time. As I mentioned earlier, place food items on the table, even if you don’t think that he is going to eat them. Also, try to place a new food on his plate at every meal. If your child is sensitive to foods on his plate touching each other, be sure the foods don’t touch. You don’t want him to go into full meltdown before dinner time even starts.
No matter what the problem, I often remind parents to try, and try again. The same strategy goes for introducing your child to new foods. Be patient and consistently keep trying. Believe in yourself! Believe in your child! Believe in the power of delicious food!
If you think that your child has Sensory Processing challenges, be sure to mention that to your child’s pediatrician and treating Occupational Therapist. Many Occupational Therapists work on food sensitivities with children with Autism.
Also, if you have any questions, please feel free to email me at JenniferLingle@AutismConsultingandTraining.com. I offer a free “Getting to Know You Call” to families to assess your challenges and create a next step action plan to help you and your child.
Editor: Ymkje Wideman