Feeding a picky eater with autism is no easy feat. At this point I feel like I’ve heard it all - every challenge, meltdown, rigid preference, food restriction, and more. That’s all to say: I know what you’re up against. And I know the challenges are real.
I’ve worked with a lot of autism parents in my Autism Nutrition Program to help expand their child’s diet and optimize nutrition. While every child I see faces unique challenges to eating, I am finding patterns in some responses to challenging eating behaviors. These responses aren’t the causes of picky eating, but they are factors that can interfere with efforts to improve and expand diet.
Nutrition and Autism: Beyond a Child’s Eating
To be clear, the point of this post isn’t to highlight all of the things you’re doing wrong. I know you’re doing the best you can. I know that everything you’re doing is with your child’s best interest in mind. You just want him to eat and be as healthy as he can be. I want that, too.
That’s why I want to share these three picky eating tips. They’re easy, but will translate to big change. So if you’re ready to stop repeating (or hopefully even avoid making!) the same mistakes I see over and over, you’re in the right place. These tips will help you work with - not against - your picky eater so you can spend less time stressing about food, and more time doing the things you love together.
The Top Three Autism Feeding Therapy Mistakes (And How You Can Fix Them)
Autism Eating Mistake #1
Only serving foods you know your child likes and not re-offering new ones
So many parents of the kids I work with are concerned that their child could go days without eating if they aren’t offered something they like. Like you, these parents don’t like wasting food and they’re so worried that their child isn’t eating the right foods to meet his nutritional needs. So, out of concern, they serve the same few foods that their child reliably eats over and over. What happens is the child then never has the opportunity to try or even meet new foods.
Similarly, many parents have told me that well, they did introduce broccoli, or chicken, or pasta once. But their kid didn’t eat it. And that was it. They assumed their child simply didn’t like the food and never offered it again. Kids won’t like a lot of foods on the first try. Kids with autism especially might need to “meet” a new food a dozen - or even dozens of- times before they one day decide to eat it.
In my coaching program, I recommend that parents serve their child one new food at every single meal every single day. Okay, I’m not really that strict about it, but you get the idea. Kids with autism can need multiple exposures to new foods before they’re ready to take a taste. With each exposure the food becomes a little less new, a little less scary, and a little more familiar.
Autism Eating Mistake #2
Moving too quickly
It is SO exciting to see a selective eater finally start to eat new foods. Parents are absolutely thrilled. Like several exclamation marks thrilled. And they should be. It’s a big deal. It’s easy to get caught up in the excitement of a new taste and then move ahead with new foods or larger portions too soon or too quickly. Large, fast changes can be overwhelming and can stall your child’s progress, or even backfire to the point of eating regression.
Kids do really well with slow change and slow progression, especially when it comes to restrictive eaters and food. Do take time to celebrate the wins - they’re awesome - but remember that slow and steady wins the race here. Patience and persistence will ultimately get you the eating results your child deserves.
Autism Eating Mistake #3
Starting a special diet before tackling barriers to eating
If you’ve ever consider the gluten free casein free diet or another special diet for autism, you’ve probably faced this conundrum: you want to see if an elimination diet will help with autism symptoms, but you’re worried because your kid already has such a restrictive diet.
I’ve spoken to a lot of parents who have been here and have given a special autism diet a go only to drop it within days. It’s hard to take away gluten or dairy from a child who loves grilled cheese and not much else. I was recently speaking with one of the moms in my program who was beginning to see progress with her son. Now that he was eating a couple more foods she was wondering if dairy was doing him more harm than good (he’s the grilled cheese lover who wouldn’t have been left with much else). My feeling is no, not right now. Your child needs to know that she will always have her favorite foods available and that learning to eat new ones won’t take those away. This is especially true if you’re child has a diet of less than 20 foods.
I’m all for trying a special diet, but I strongly believe it’s wise to start them only after your child has a comfortably diverse diet and you have worked to overcome any feeding barriers that interfere with how and what your child eats.
All parents just want their kids to be healthy, but some of the most common behaviors I see in parents of picky eaters can actually reinforce picky eating.
After reading the article, do you see areas where you can make adjustments to better help your child learn to eat more foods?
My autism nutrition program is designed for autistic kids with limited diets who have trouble trying new foods. If you’re ready to help your child and want to avoid any mistakes that can stall your progress, I can save you time, stress, and energy so you get there faster and easier. Sign up for a FREE coaching call to get the support you need to expand his or her diet.