Do you have a picky eater on the autism spectrum?
No, I’m not undermining the feeding challenges you see in your child with autism. Actually, it’s the opposite.
Picky eating is something most parents identify in children at some point in their lives. Many experts actually believe selective eating preferences are a natural part of growing up. Saying no to foods is a way for children to assert themselves and, way back when, a more nuanced sensitivity to bitterness (which may contribute to pickiness in toddlers) was a form of protection from eating potentially poisonous foods.
Autism and Picky Eating
An even higher percentage of autism parents (estimates are as high as 89%) report eating challenges in their children. We tend to call this pickiness by default, but autism eating behaviors often look different from traditional picky eating.
When children don’t respond to traditional picky eating strategies, severely restrict their diets, drop favorite foods, and/or have maladaptive reactions to eating (like gagging), the term “picky eating” no longer applies. There are several terms that describe a more serious relationship with food.
This article will:
Compare picky eating versus problem feeding
Provide suggestions on how to help your autistic child eat better, whether he is a problem feeder or picky eater
Picky Eater vs Problem Feeder
Find out what it really means for a child to be a picky eater. Take a look at this list below to determine if your child is a picky eater or a problem feeder. Take this simple quiz for an easy answer.
Eats less than 20 foods
Drops favorite foods without ever reintroducing them
Has a meltdown when presented with new foods on their plate
Can’t tolerate touching or tasting a new food
Refuses to eat entire food groups
Refuses to eat one or more food textures
Typically won’t eat with the family, prefers to eat alone
Rarely eats a family meal
Requires more than 25 exposures to accept a new food
Eat at least 30 foods
Drops favorite foods, but reintroduces them after a short break
Tolerates new foods on their plate
Doesn’t have much issue touching or tasting a new food
Eats at least one food from every food group
Eats at least one food from most textures
Typically eats with the family
Might eat a family meal, sometimes eats a different meal
Will add new foods after 20-25 exposures
Autism and Picky Eating
How to help autistic children with food aversions or extreme picky eating
Many parents tell me that when they share their child’s eating struggles they’re often told “Oh, he’ll grow out of it” or “Just wait, she’ll eat when she’s hungry.” For problem feeders and kids with autism, this isn’t the case - you know that from your own experience.
If you aren’t sure where your child falls on the picky eating spectrum, consider a feeding evaluation.
If you feel like you’ve tried everything and are ready for individualized support to help your child try new foods and expand his or her diet, check out my nutrition coaching program HERE.
Problem feeding is a more extreme expression of picky eating. Whereas picky eating might resolve on its own, problem feeding is rarely just a phase. If your child is eating less than 20 foods and avoids entire food groups, types of foods, or textures, you’re probably looking at problem feeding and might want to consider working with a dietitian, feeding therapist, or specialist.