Sensory food aversions and texture preferences are common barriers to eating a balanced diet for many kids on with autism. Research suggests that anywhere from 30 to over 50% of autistic kids refuse food due to texture.
I wasn’t surprised when an autism mom came to me recently with this question: “My 4-year-old will only eat dry food. How can I incorporate wet foods and sauces/dips?”
Have you had any success introducing soft foods to a child who loves crunchy dry foods?
I have a few tips for expanding the textures and types of foods a sensory averse kid on the spectrum will eat.
First, though, it’s important to rule out any oral-motor dysfunctions that may be at the root of food texture issues in autism.
Once you know that your child can safely tolerate all textures, try these tips for overcoming autism food texture aversions:
I’m not a fan of pâté I’m totally turned off by the fact that meat – usually so tough, and well, meaty – is light, smooth, and mousse-y. It’s creepy! (Luckily this is not a huge barrier for me as I don’t encounter fancy pâté all that often!).
Even though I know it’s okay to dislike a food, I still challenge myself to try it. One of the ways I do this is my first touching the pâté with my fingers. The touch experience gives my mouth an idea of what to expect. Next, I’ll take just a tiny tiny taste. It’s not so overwhelming when it’s itty bitty. Usually I’ll try to eat it with something I enjoy, like a tasty slice of bread.
What I do with pâté is a simplified practice of desensitization, a way to prime the body and increase familiarity and comfort with newness. Desensitization is exactly what you want to do when introducing foods with new textures to a child with sensory processing disorder and food aversions.
To desensitize your child to new textures, encourage him/her to begin to interact with the food without the expectation of eating. Stress that part! They don’t need to eat. You just want them to make friends with this food, to get comfortable with having it around. To do this, have them observe you prepare the food. Then, place the food on the table during a meal. When they’re comfortable eating with the food, gradually increase their interaction by moving the plate closer to them and eventually placing the new food on the plate (not touching their usual food!). Once your child can tolerate hanging out with the new food, it’s time to get a little more intimate. Just as I touched my pate, it’s time for your kid to try tactile experiences with the food. Start at the fingers – far away from the mouth – and gradually work your way up the arm moving closer to the face and mouth. Let them work up to touching, smelling, kissing, licking, and finally tasting. A few extra tips:
Keep bites small
Use the same food every time
And give praise at every step
Preferred food vehicle
Building on characteristics of preferred foods is a common technique for introducing new foods to a selective eater. This is the principle of food chaining and is something I use frequently with the ASD kids I work with. When introducing a completely new texture to a child, pair just a small amount of the new with a preferred, frequently accepted food. Let’s use the dry-food-loving four-year-old as an example. For him I would pair a sauce, dip, or soft food with a preferred dry food like a chip or cracker. Maybe you’re offering the tiniest dab of hummus on a cracker or a pretzel rod dotted with peanut butter. The goal is keep the new texture small enough to not be threatening and make it seem familiar by pairing it with something preferred. Offering a preferred food that the child loves will also increase likelihood of eating.
The goal is to gradually adjust the portion of the new texture as the child comes to accept eating it until they can eventually eat it on their own.
If eating even just the smallest dab of a new texture paired with a preferred food is too overwhelming, encourage your child to wipe off the new food so they’re left with just their plain preferred food. Then encourage them to eat it! While offering the same dry cracker that they always eat doesn’t seem like progress, you are still working on the desensitization steps above and moving towards eventual eating.
Gradual texture changes
A major part about overcoming feeding challenges in children with autism is going slowly. Gradual change leads to gradual progress (again, this is key to food chaining). Keep this in mind when you’re working with texture. Adapt a wet food as much as possible to appeal to the child’s preferences. Tomato sauce and nut butters are available chunky or smooth. Smoothies can be thick or thin. Start with something similar to what your child is comfortable with and gradually adjust the texture as their comfort level increases.
Keep in mind that children who don’t like soft, wet foods will likely not respond well to meeting a smooth pureed soup or yogurt. They might feel more comfortable with chunky soup veggies sitting in only a bit of broth topped with dry crisp croutons or a bowl of crunchy granola drizzled with yogurt. When your child accepts these food pairings, gradually adjust the ratio and overall texture. Slowly the soup becomes more pureed. Slowly the portion of granola is smaller and softer.
As with all tips to improve picky eating in autism, these techniques for overcoming food texture aversions can take time. Sensory food aversions are usually deep-rooted and can come with anxiety. These are some easy techniques that you can try to implement with your picky eater at home, but there are several more strategies.
If you’re not seeing progress, consider professional guidance from a speech therapist, occupational therapist, or registered dietitian. I work with autistic children with sensory food aversions and other eating challenges. You can get in touch with me here.
Incorporate one of these techniques – desensitization, using a food vehicle, or gradual texture changes – at a meal this week. I always like trying this at breakfast when energy levels are higher (that tends to help things go a little more smoothly!).
Be sure to grab my FREE guide to help your picky eater with autism learn to love new foods for more tips.