Picky Eating vs. Problem Feeding in Autism


Do you have a picky eater on the autism spectrum?


I disagree.

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.

Problem Feeder

  • 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

Picky Eater

  • 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.

Is my child a picky eater or a problem feeder? Take this quiz to find out!

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* Be sure to grab my FREE Picky Eating Guide if you don’t have it already *