Picky eating can be one of the more frustrating aspects of bringing up an autistic child, as parents are naturally concerned with the development of their child’s eating habits, ideally wanting healthy habits that promote good nutrition and variety. It can also be understandably stressful when cooking for a family to have one child who consistently rejects the food on the table.
Before worrying about tackling the behavior of picky eating itself, it’s important to first rule out any underlying health issues that could be contributing to the issue.
It is common for autistic children to suffer from gastrointestinal issues, and some food aversions may, in fact, be caused by the child (subconsciously perhaps) knowing that the particular food doesn’t agree with their delicate system. Other underlying medical conditions could impact their ability to digest or even swallow certain foods. It’s vital, therefore, that parents and caregivers stay open to what the issue truly stems from and consult with a health professional as necessary.
A big part of the stress of picky eating is the concern over whether the child is taking in sufficient nutrients for optimal health. While working to improve the variety of their diet, parents and caregivers can substitute with supplements and food choices enriched with whatever they fear the child is lacking. For example, ice cream flavored protein powder is a great way to increase their protein intake with a yummy treat and a relatively plain and generally well-tolerated flavor.
1. Give them options
By offering the child some options, it can reduce their anxiety around not feeling in control, allowing them to choose for themselves which one they would prefer to eat.
So, if there is a particular food group that the child needs to include in their diet, consider choosing two or three options and giving the child a choice between them. It can also help to choose food items that differ texturally, such as crunchy carrots, soft pumpkins, or ‘little trees’ when introducing broccoli.
2. Focus on taking baby steps
Lowering expectations is the first thing to do to reduce the stress of trying to improve an autistic child’s eating habits. In the vast majority of cases, the most you can realistically hope for are small changes here and there, so focusing on taking baby steps and celebrating the little wins will make the whole process a great deal less stressful.
3. Allow them to play with their food
Allowing a child to play with their food at the dinner table might not typically be the done thing, but encouraging autistic children to interact with their food in this way can improve their overall engagement and reduce their anxiety response to new foods. You could even allow your child to listen to their favorite music while eating, which could also help them feel calmer and more at ease.
Food aversions can create unhealthy associations with food and mealtimes in general, so however it can be made more fun and less stressful, the better it will be for instilling a positive relationship to food and eating. It can also help to engage them further by involving them in the cooking process as they get a little older.
4. Pay attention to textures
For many autistic children, it’s the textures of different foods that cause many of the problems, as they may not like the way some foods feel in their mouth due to their sensory processing sensitivities.
Take note of the textures that they prefer and the ones they have the most trouble with, and stick to textures similar to those best tolerated when introducing new options.
5. Stay calm
It’s important to remember that when it comes to significant food aversion symptoms in autistic children, it isn’t defiance for the sake of defiance that you’re dealing with – they genuinely struggle to chew, taste, or otherwise experience different and often new types of food. Consequently, feeling forced to eat some food items can produce more anxiety and distress, only making matters worse. So, as hard as it can be at times, staying calm and approaching the situation in a gentle way can make a big difference and keep you moving forwards instead of having meltdowns send any progress grinding to a halt.
6. Focus on positive reinforcement
Positive reinforcement can be a great strategy for getting autistic children to try new things, including food. By rewarding their positive behaviors, it can be a little easier to get them to continue branching out a little more with their choices.
For some, giving them foods they prefer as a reward for taking a few bites of a new food works well, but simply praising them can be sufficient. Sometimes, just one bite of unfamiliar food is well worth celebrating.
Acceptance, patience, and positivity
Stress is the biggest barrier to helping autistic child improve their eating habits and widen the variety of foods they eat. Supplementing with easy nutritious options can provide the peace of mind parents and caregivers need so that they can relax and accept that combating food aversions is a slow-going process.