Feeding a child with autism can be a challenge. Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a developmental disability. While the manifestation of autism symptoms is unique in each individual, behavioral barriers, food anxiety, limited diets, and sensory aversions are common challenges that complicate eating for kids on the spectrum.
Parents of children with autism come to me worried that their child isn’t getting proper nutrition and concerned that their child’s complicated relationship with food will negatively impact their social and family life.
If you’re one of the many parents who report that mealtimes are the most stressful part of the day, this article is for you.
In my work as an autism nutritionist I have found some secret weapons that will help you manage the most common feeding challenges in autism. By relaxing your child, preparing their sensory system for eating, and providing comfort so you too can breathe easy knowing your child is getting the nutrition they need, these tools can improve your child’s relationship with food.
(PS - I offer a bunch of tips for managing mealtime meltdowns in this post)
Here are 10 things worth buying to dramatically improve your ASD child’s relationship with food
Children with autism who have strong visual skills appreciate this timer that encourages independence and allows them to easily track time passing. Providing clarity such as how long a meal will last or how much time remains until a meal begins can help minimize your child’s anxiety associated with staying at the table during meals. A visual timer focuses on your child’s strengths while providing visual cues about what is expected of them. This timer is also a wonderful choice for a child with auditory sensitivities as there is no loud ticking and an optional alarm.
Books to creatively manage autism eating challenges
These are two of my favorite books for tackling feeding disorders and helping children have a positive relationship with food and eating. The first, which focuses on using exposure and hands-on experiences to make food fun and familiar I wish I wrote myself. Adventures in Veggieland comes from Melanie Potock, a pediatric speech pathologist who breaks down a proven strategy to help kids learn to love any kind of food: expose, explore, and expand. Adventures in Veggieland provides a framework working through these “Three E’s” with a variety of vegetables. Expect food play, creative tasting, and tons of kid-friendly recipes.
My second go-to, Food Chaining, is a proven strategy to stop picky eating, solve feeding problems, and expand a child’s diet. This book comes from a team of medical professionals in a feeding center. The idea of food chaining is to introduce a child to new foods by incorporating food characteristics - texture, taste, type, color, temperature - that they already like. For example, if your child loves a particular brand of chicken nuggets and ketchup, you can try introducing a new brand of similar nuggets with ketchup or the same brand in a different shape. Eventually little tweaks can lead you to a whole new food. With food chaining children who love chicken nuggets learn to eat chicken breast, shredded chicken, baked chicken, and even fish.
A separated plate for fun touch-free meals
The Ezpz Happy Mat is actually a two-in-one placemat plate combo that suctions to the table. Children with autism tend prefer the divided sections in the Happy Mat to keep foods from touching. This comes in especially handy when you’re introducing new foods! The Happy Mat’s smiling face inspires play and creativity, which can lessen mealtime anxiety and improve your child’s relationship with food. It even comes with a parent-approved perk: the self-seal placement not only captures food mess, but also makes disruptive mealtime behaviors like plate throwing pretty unlikely.
An indoor herb garden to increase exposure
There is a plethora of research showing that children who play with and encounter foods outside of mealtimes are more likely to eat those foods at meals. Food play, exposure, and exploration allow children to become familiar with all of the sensory properties of a food before having to taste a it. There are a ton of activities you can do to introduce your child to new foods. One of my favorites is growing simple herbs or vegetables. Try starting with an indoor herb garden like this kit from Spade to Fork. Children will learn a ton from the growing experience. Once you have full plants smell them and harvest to make a pesto together.
Cooking tools to inspire tasting
Children who cook tend to be children who eat. Encourage your child to join you in the kitchen for food prep or play. Think small and start simply when beginning. Focus on easy tasks that spark your child’s interest. Some fun introductory activities include: tearing herbs, washing produce, organizing spice jars, smelling new foods, lining muffin tins, arranging cookies on a tray, and pressing buttons on the blender. Remember, any exposure to food outside of mealtimes can increase consumption. For the child who is ready to get cooking, these are some handy kid-friendly kitchen starter pieces
Sensory play mats to cue mealtimes and prepare the sensory system
Children with autism benefit from routines and behavior cues. One of the fun ways I suggest families create routines around mealtime is by creating a sensory obstacle course using Gonge Tactile Disks. I know. It sounds like these are too fun to ever result in your kid sitting down to eat. Create a routine where the disks lead to dinner. You can use the visual timer or play music to cue the action. Not only will your child appreciate the routine, the disks also arouse a child’s sensory system and ignite their desire to explore, touch, feel, and experience - all wonderful preparation for the sensory system before mealtime.
Try a weighted lap pad or stuffed animal created specifically for kids with sensory challenges to soothe and provide comfort. Mealtime anxiety is common for ASD children with feeding challenges. The gentle weighted pressure can minimize the stress associated with eating.
Muffling earmuffs to buffer the sensory load
Sound is a big barrier for many children on the spectrum. Children report difficulties listening to others chewing, hearing silverware clanking against plates, and even processing the combination of sounds that arise during a meal. These made-for-kids earmuffs provide a buffer to auditory overload, making it easier for kids to sit with others during a meal.
Texture is a huge barrier for many children with autism and sensory challenges. Even just a slim barrier like these kid-sized gloves can minimize the tactile feedback making touching food a lot more approachable. These gloves can be used during mealtimes or any food-related experience like cooking, shopping, and playing with food. Remember, exposure to food outside of mealtimes increases chance of tasting.
These fun dipping cups will be your best friends. Use them to create fun snack lunches and keep favorite foods from touching. Parents and kids also love these dipping cups for holding your child’s favorite dip in a food chaining activity.
ASD parents love these tools that improve their child’s relationship with food. To recap, by making eating fun, managing sensory barriers, and providing exposures to food outside of mealtimes, these tools improve many of the food challenges that children with autism experience.
What are your favorite food and mealtime tools for your kiddo on the spectrum? Share with me in the comments below.
* Be sure to grab my FREE Picky Eating Guide if you don’t have it already *
Please note! I have an advertising relationship with some of the stores linked in this post.