Picky eaters with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) often struggle with atypical eating behaviors, food rejection, and aversions. These emotional, behavioral, and physical problems go beyond simple unwillingness or dislike of food. They are a facet of autism that is not always easy to understand or address. Individuals with autism may oppose more foods than they eat. There is often a tendency only to eat familiar foods. In some severe cases, children may eat no more than five different food items in total.
Picky eaters with autism make up roughly 70% of children diagnosed that exhibit “abnormal eating behaviors.” This statistic is approximately 15 times the rate of neurotypical children their age. Children with autism are also more likely to have two or more atypical eating behaviors. Children with different developmental disorders were less likely to struggle with food.
6 Tips for Helping Picky Eaters with Autism
Here are a few ways to help your child with autism if they struggle with food-related issues:
1. Offer small bites.
Keep records of the foods your child already likes and slowly introduce new foods through tiny tastes. Offer these new varieties with already established likes, so there isn’t pressure to complete a significant portion.
For example, if the child likes snow peas, you can slowly introduce raisins one at a time. Hence, the child adjusts to the food’s presence, appearance, texture, and taste. It’s expected that they won’t finish the new food on the first introduction! But consistently introducing the new variety in small amounts to their existing plate will help ease intolerability.
With time the child will be more familiar with the food and start to eat it. As picky eaters with autism become more accustomed to the new food, you can add more to their plate. Introducing foods similar in flavor and texture to your child’s already likes may be helpful.
2. Apply stimulus fading.
For picky eaters with autism, stimulus fading involves gradually increasing the amount of food presented. This is specific to foods that the child has a history of rejecting. Smells, textures, or flavors different from what your child generally prefers are encouraged. This works well in conjunction with offering tiny bites.
When the child can tolerate three consecutive bites of the new food within 30 seconds without screaming or gagging, you can increase the portion size of that particular food for the next meal. This process takes time and should be conducted carefully and with compassion.
3. Thoughtfully pair foods.
Pair foods you know picky eaters with autism already love with new or previously rejected things. This creates positive associations between these foods. For each bite of a new food they dislike, offer a taste of something they enjoy! Pair exploring new foods with positive reinforcement.
4. Implement a token system.
Assign points, tokens, or some value to new foods or foods picky eaters with autism don’t organically enjoy. Reward them for eating these foods with points towards extra iPad time or their choice of rewarding activity. Make sure that the reward you select is motivating for the child! You may see little progress if there is no motivation to try the new food.
5. Apply desensitization practices.
If your child rejects a particular food but requires it nutritionally, reintroduce it in slow and less intrusive ways.
For example, if picky eaters with autism hate apples, start placing apples in the same room as them when engaging in a preferred play activity. The idea is to help them adjust to the presence of the food without having to engage with it in any way. Once they can tolerate the presence of the food, slowly integrate it into the table during mealtimes. Still, do not encourage them to eat, touch or smell the new food. Eventually, introduce it to their plate while eliminating the pressure to eat it. Finally, encourage them to have a small bite when they have resolved their original feelings of rejection around the food.
6. Tailor textures.
If picky eaters with autism refuse to sample, taste, or eat foods with certain textures, try to provide a broader range of foods similar to the ones they like. For example, if they only want fried foods, try selecting food identical to that satiating texture. Try preparing fruits and vegetables in a familiar way with the foods they already feel safe eating.
When Does Picky Eating in Autism Begin to Develop?
Many children with autism become pickier eaters as they enter their toddler years, beginning to refuse particular foods because of texture, scent, taste, or other reasons. While it may seem like the child is being difficult or picky for no reason, which can be frustrating for parents, the underlying problems can be more deeply rooted in their autism.
Limited food choices can be an issue as children transition from baby food to regular food. Encouraging them to eat nourishing foods like fruits and vegetables or even try new food may be critical for picky eaters with autism.
What’s the Difference Between Picky Eating vs. Food Rejection?
Problems related to eating in children with autism are significantly different from the standard Issues associated with “picky eating.” While many children will experience picky eating at some point, most will grow out of it. Children with autism maintain their hyper-fixation with certain foods. To break this attachment, a pediatrician may recommend a behavioral treatment like Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) therapy. Nutritional support may also aid a child in achieving a balanced, healthy diet.
What Causes Picky Eating in Autism?
Children diagnosed with autism should consult a behavior specialist as soon as possible. An ABA professional or developmental pediatrician will address symptoms of autism that can worsen without intervention. These include engaging in repetitive or restricting behaviors, socially isolating or limiting interactions with peers, and rejecting most foods.
It is not abnormal for individuals with autism to also have gastrointestinal issues. It’s easy to sometimes associate the symptoms of these conditions with certain foods, which can cause further food rejections. Individuals with autism often struggle with digestive discomfort, diarrhea, constipation, and other digestive-related issues. Again, these symptoms can lead to stress at mealtimes or meltdowns around food.
Lastly, motor issues can contribute to food rejection. Children with autism commonly have less muscle tone and motor coordination than their neurotypical peers. These impairments can result in the denial of crunchier, more arduous, or fibrous food that requires extensive chewing. These individuals may favor softer textured food with which they are already familiar.
Support Your Child in Their Endeavors to Fix Their Picky Eating!
Try to reframe the way you present food to picky eaters with autism. This can be as effortless as choosing to offer your child available options instead of asking them directly what they want to eat. Offer many healthy food options to give them a choice while keeping all the possibilities nutritious.
Involve your child in preparing food, which is another way to introduce them to food. Mask the scent of certain foods by combining them with things they like. Also, offer your child something tasty to drink after sampling a food they previously rejected.
Above all else, try to have fun while you discover new foods with your neurodivergent loved one! This will go a long way!
ABA Centers of America and Picky Eating
If you are struggling with a picky-eating issue, consulting with your pediatrician or the Board-Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA) assigned to your case may be helpful. Food issues directly affect a child’s physical health. Be sure to address any cause of the food rejection, like discomfort. Behavior approaches to eating help many picky eaters with autism change their food behaviors. Over time, you should see progress in openness to trying new foods and less picky eating!
ABA Centers of America understands the value of vital nutrition for children with autism. The journey to guide your child to better eating habits can be a challenging experience. ABA therapy may be the answer to helping your child discover a world of new foods! If you would like more information about ABA therapy for autism, call (844) 923-4222 for a free consultation or visit abacenters.com.