Autism and Food-Related Issues, Part 1: Help for Picky Eaters

Some families may take peaceful, stress-free meals together for granted, but we’re guessing that yours isn’t one of them. If your child has autism, then it’s likely you’ve dealt with drama surrounding food and mealtimes.

We understand how challenging it can be to accommodate your child’s food preferences while still providing a balanced, nutritious diet. To help your favorite picky eater expand his or her horizons, we suggest the following steps:

First, investigate possible medical issues.

As an autism parent, you may have noticed a disproportionate number of your child’s peers on the spectrum struggling with food-related issues. Studies prove that it’s not just your imagination: children with autism really are more likely to have food allergies and intolerances.

In her Psychology Today article Food, Inflammation, and Autism: Is There A Link?, Krysteena Stephens, M.A., IMFT cited a 2006 study based on the 2003 to 2004 National Survey of Children’s Health. The study demonstrated that “ … Allergies, particularly food allergies, [are] more prevalent in children with ASD than those without.”

Since a significant percentage of individuals with autism have food intolerances and allergies, they can feel physically ill when they eat certain foods. Yet since autism also involves communication difficulties, these individuals may not give voice to their felt experiences.

As such, completing medical check-ups and relevant tests is important. If your child is a very picky eater, make an appointment to get him or her tested for gastrointestinal issues or common allergies.

Recognize the sensory components of eating and work to minimize discomfort.

Individuals with autism often experience the sensory aspects of eating more strongly than others. They might feel uncomfortable with the flavor or texture of a given food, but they might also struggle with sensory inputs surrounding the dining ritual itself.

For example, some people with autism report that they can’t stand the sound of metal utensils clicking against dishware or people’s teeth. In such cases, substituting different silverware could make a big difference.

Know that it’s also possible that your child might be a supertaster. Supertasters are people who are extremely sensitive to specific tastes, and they represent as much as 25% of the overall population.

Supertasters typically shun cruciferous vegetables such as broccoli, Brussels sprouts, and kale, as well as mushrooms and soy products. These foods taste more bitter to supertasters than they do to the rest of us.

Encourage initial tasting, not eating.

In The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh, our favorite stuffed bear is about to accept a delicious pot of honey, but his friend Rabbit snatches it away. Pooh pleads, “But Rabbit, I wasn’t going to eat it. I was just gonna taste it.”

When coping with a picky eater, scenes such as this remind us to separate tasting from eating. Why? Because it’s a reminder that eating and tasting are different. When you’re first working on introducing a more varied diet, don’t try for eating. Try for tasting instead.

Who knows? Maybe you’ll find that, like Pooh, your child can transition from tasting to eating in the blink of an eye!

If tasting isn’t happening, have your child try sniffing a new food, touching it, or helping you to stir or serve it. This way, you’ll familiarize your child with the new food and make it more of a known entity.

You wouldn’t expect your child to tie his shoes on the first try, so let go of the expectation that he’ll try new foods the first time he sees them, too.

Embrace the idea of going slow and making small wins.

This is where your Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) experience comes into play. By now, you understand that teaching your child a new skill involves breaking down the steps involved and practicing each component over and over again.

It takes patience and tenacity to persist in daily reinforcement of new skills. As autism mom Shirley Nutt wisely emphasizes, “Learning ABA is not the tricky part … ABA reinforcement on a consistent basis is the tricky part.”

Why is it so hard? Because a strategy of small wins can feel counter intuitive. When you realize that your child’s eating habits need to shift, you probably want to make major changes now! After all, what if your child is missing out on crucial nutrients? What if his unbalanced eating habits are stunting his growth?

We understand how challenging it can be to take a gentle, incremental approach to a pressing problem … but we’ve also seen how effective the strategy of “small wins” can be.

Take the long view

One of the most helpful decisions you can make when it comes to shifting your child’s eating habits is to take the long view. Decide that his habits don’t have to change all at once. Instead, begin laying the groundwork for them to change in the future.

In her bestselling book The Four Day Win, Harvard-trained sociologist Dr. Martha Beck advocates taking “turtle steps”. When it comes to big changes, she says, smaller is better:

I’m always trying to level Everest with a hand trowel. A turtle step is a single trowelful of earth, an action that takes me toward my goal but is so easy I know for sure I can do it …. Tiny steps work. The tortoise usually does beat the hare.”

So if your child subsists entirely on French fries, don’t expect him to eat a full portion of vegetables tonight at dinner. Going from no vegetables to a serving of vegetables may be too big of a leap. Instead, choose a step you feel confident is well within your child’s current capability. You might go from zero interaction with vegetables to tasting or smelling a vegetable, or simply sitting at a table where vegetables are being served. Once you’ve done that for a few days, you can progress to a new turtle step. Before you know it, you’ll be seeing progress.

Since food aversions affect approximately two-thirds of children on the spectrum, we’ve started a new series to help parents of children with autism. We hope you found this post helpful in coping with and picky eating behaviors. If so, look for our future posts and be sure to share this one with friends and family in your social network. And if you have suggestions for future topics, let us know in the comments.