Picky eating is a common issue seen in children with autism spectrum disorder. This could be a serious issue that could lead to physical health concerns or developmental issues as well as deficiencies in specific nutrients.
Many children with autism spectrum disorder are described as picky eaters. Parents of children with autism often find it challenging when their child only eats a limited variety of foods or when they refuse foods that are offered to them.
One common experience of families that have a child who is a picky eater is that family meals can be very stressful. The parent might wish they could cook one meal and have everyone in the family eat it willingly and happily.
However, a child who is selective about what he eats might refuse to eat what his parent made for the family. This can create concerns regarding the health of the child especially if they are only eating a select few foods that might not provide them with the nutrients that would be ideal for someone to have a well-balanced diet which is optimal for growth and development and day-to-day functioning.
Another term that is used to describe picky eaters is food selectivity. Food selectivity is more commonly seen in children with developmental disabilities than in children without disabilities. Food selectivity is especially common in children with autism spectrum disorder.
The cause of food selectivity is unknown but sensory issues might be one factor. Some children have aversions to specific textures, colors, smells, temperatures, or even specific brands or sources of foods.
Let’s consider some examples of food selectivity in children with autism.
Some children will only eat a certain brand’s macaroni and cheese but not homemade macaroni and cheese or another brand of macaroni and cheese. Some children only eat crunchy foods like crackers and chips.
Other children have strong aversions to the smell of certain foods which causes extreme distress for them. This might look like a child who is extremely uncomfortable – maybe they verbally express how much they dislike the smell, or they might have a temper tantrum, or they might leave the room – when their parent makes a certain food for dinner. To summarize, food selectivity refers to any combination of the following:
Before we discuss the recommendations that could help your child become less of a picky eater and expand the foods they eat, it is important to point out that not all kids will respond to these recommendations in the same way. It’s important to consider your child’s unique needs and abilities.
Another thing to keep in mind is that it’s okay for your child to have some foods that they don’t like. A lot of people with and without disabilities have certain foods that they don’t like, so just keep that in mind when trying to introduce new foods into your child’s diet.
Also, it can be risky to address food selectivity in children. Not only can using ineffective interventions make it worse, but some children might also have underlying medical conditions that impact their ability to swallow, digest, or consume certain foods. Because of this, it’s important to consult with a medical professional to rule out medical issues that could impact a child’s ability to eat new foods. Also, a speech-language pathologist can help to address oral motor issues that could impact eating.
Although parents can help their children eat a greater variety of foods and reduce issues related to picky eating, receiving services from a Board Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA) can be a great resource for when your child isn’t making progress.
Contact Behavioral Innovations to receive ABA services from a BCBA. Our team is ready to help you and your child.
One strategy that you can use to introduce new foods to your child is to offer them choices. You might consider picking two foods that your child might try.
These could be foods like the ones they already eat. The aim is to help expand the type and variety of foods that they eat. For instance, if your child basically only eats certain crunchy foods, you could select a new type of cracker and a new type of chip and ask your child which one they’d like to try.
Or it could be foods that are part of a more well-balanced diet that you’d like your child to have. In this case, you could select two vegetables that you think would be the easiest for your child to eat and ask which one they’d like to try.
Don’t set your expectations too high at first. It’s okay to have goals that somewhat challenge your child but be sure to reinforce small steps. For instance, if you would like your child to eat foods from all food groups, just focus on one at first. Also, if you try to get your child to try a new food, accept it if they even take just a single bite or a very small portion of the food.
Sometimes it can be helpful to let your child play with food. This allows them the chance to become more familiar with the food without being expected to consume it. Engaging in some hands-on play with the food can reduce anxiety and discomfort related to the food. Additionally, having a good time and having fun with the specific food, can create a positive association with that food, so that when it comes time to try to eat the food, the child has already created a positive relationship with that food.
There are countless ways to allow your child to play with food. You could try letting them use cookie cutters to create fun shapes in a sandwich. You might allow them to make designs, such as a face on a pizza using toppings you’d like them to try. You could allow the child to make art with the food by using it like finger paint or using a paintbrush and making a picture, such as using spaghetti sauce or pudding or yogurt on a piece of paper or a paper plate or a cookie sheet.
Some kids with autism find new foods aversive because of the texture of the food. They may be used to and prefer to eat foods of a certain texture. They might not like certain textures. They might not like the way a food feels in their mouth. So, when introducing new foods to your child with autism, try to think about if it could be the actual taste of the food or if it could be the texture or the feel of the food that your child doesn’t like. When encouraging your child to eat new foods, try to choose foods, at least at first, that are textures the same as or closely related to foods that your child already eats.
When getting your child to eat new food, use a gentle approach. Stay calm with your child even when they seem to be resisting trying new foods. It’s recommended that you don’t use punishment to get your child to expand the variety of foods that he or she eats. This can have the opposite effect and might make them even more restrictive in terms of what they do and don’t want to eat.
Positive reinforcement is a strategy that can be used to help children learn new things. Positive reinforcement refers to providing an experience, such as a reward, after your child does a specific behavior, such as eating a bite of new food, and then they end up being more likely to do that behavior again. So, to use positive reinforcement with your child with the goal of getting them to eat new foods, consider what type of reward you might provide them with after they accomplish a small goal.
An example of this could be offering them a food that they do like after they take one small bite of a food that is new to them. Be very careful about this, though, as you don’t want to get into a battle with your child and you, of course, don’t want to withhold food from them. So, be sure to consider your child’s own unique needs.
If you don’t want to use food as a reward or it doesn’t seem appropriate for your child, you could offer them some time on their preferred electronic device (like a tablet or video game) if they try the new food.
Although just simply eating the food yourself might not always work to get your child to try the new foods, it can help to be a positive influence on what your child does eat by eating certain foods yourself. Be sure that you eat the foods often that you want your child to eat, as well.
Although we haven’t addressed all the ways you can introduce new foods to a child with autism spectrum disorder, we have offered you some recommendations that are based on effective strategies for helping children who might be described as picky eaters.
Consider one or more of the suggestions we’ve discussed that seem best for your child. As a review, we’ve recommended:
If you’d like more help with this, be sure to reach out to Behavioral Innovations.
Bandini, L. G., Anderson, S. E., Curtin, C., Cermak, S., Evans, E. W., Scampini, R., Maslin, M., & Must, A. (2010). Food selectivity in children with autism spectrum disorders and typically developing children. The Journal of pediatrics, 157(2), 259–264. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jpeds.2010.02.013
Cermak, S. A., Curtin, C., & Bandini, L. G. (2010). Food selectivity and sensory sensitivity in children with autism spectrum disorders. Journal of the American Dietetic Association, 110(2), 238-46.