I’ve been doing this for a little while now and one thing is clear: while no two children with autism face the same eating challenges, almost every autism parent wants to know: how can I help my picky eater with autism?
Most parents will tell you that they’ve struggled with a child’s picky eating at some point, but feeding a picky eater with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) can be an extra challenge. Some kids with autism are on special diets that eliminate entire food groups. Some feel comfortable eating only certain colors or brands of food. Others still have belly issues, texture preferences that limit intake, or sensitivities to some smells or noises. Whatever complicates your child’s picky eating, there’s no denying it can be extremely frustrating and may even seem hopeless at times.
I’m here to let you know there is hope.
There are things you can do to help your picky eater with autism.
With a plan and some patience you can help expand the diet of your picky eater.
What I love about these tips is that you can begin trying them at home immediately. Start slowly by picking just one area to work on at a time. I suggest either identifying the most pressing issue or focusing on the area that you think will be best received. Even though they may seem simple, these changes can take you far. Just remember that that every child is different and eating is an extremely sensitive topic, probably one that has caused both you and your little a lot of stress.
8 solutions for your picky eater with autism
Avoid all day eating and drinking
It’s simple: children don’t eat if they’re not hungry. Most children benefit from eating 3 meals and 2 snacks daily, but it’s become common for kids to nosh all day long. Ubiquitous snacks tend to suppress the appetite and make mealtimes seem pointless. Structured eating plans create the opportunity for hunger to develop, so try creating 2-3 standard snack times. For a successful snack, limit eating time to around 15 minutes.
You can check out some of my favorite snack ideas for kids with autism and sensory processing disorder here.
If you’ve implemented standard snack times and your little one is still not interested in eating at mealtimes, take a look into how much and what he is drinking throughout the day. Excess fluid intake - especially of something caloric like milk or juice - can replace nutritious calories at meals. Many parents find it helpful to offer juice or milk only at certain times during the day and prefer to serve only water with meals.
Make mealtimes comfortable
If your child has sensory processing disorder (SPD) it’s possible that things that have nothing to do with food are disturbing him during meal times. Look to triggers like sounds, lighting, and smells. If your little is sensitive to these sorts of things, consider playing soothing music, seating him next to a quiet chewer, adjusting the lighting, and/or keeping your picky eater out of the kitchen while food is cooking. If smells are an issue, it’s helpful to know that cold foods are often more neutral-smelling than hot ones.
Serve new foods all the time
When you always serve something that your child likes at meals, she feels safe and welcome at the table. She knows that you are taking care of her.
Before meeting with my clients I have them create a list of food divided into three categories based on their child’s preferences: Will Always Eat, Will Sometimes Eat, and Will Never Eat. Together, we create a fourth list of goal foods that the family or child would eventually like to be on the always or sometimes lists. Make lists like these to create plates for your fussy eater. The perfect learning plate will include one food from the always and sometimes lists and one food from the goal list. The idea is that you always offer something your child loves and feels comfortable eating, while also gently introducing new flavors. If your child will not tolerate a new food on her plate, place the new food near her on a separate plate so she can still get used to it.
You might want to try this interactive compartmentalized plate that makes eating and getting to know new foods extra fun.
Your role as the parent is to create structure around meal times. You decide what to serve, when to serve it, and how it is served. Set clear expectations about how everyone should behave at the table. The key is consistency. Routine and structure not only help kids adjust their expectations and appetites, but it’s also particularly appealing to children on the spectrum who thrive with consistency.
I love this book that discusses how to confidently and successfully feed children (it’s on the long side, but the content is great!).
Include your selective eater in decision making
As kids grow they want to be more independent. They still need you as their guide, but crave control. When it comes to meals and feeding you should still be the boss while giving your picky eater on the spectrum a supporting role in decision making.
Countless studies show that children are more likely to eat food when they are involved with food preparation and selection. To give your picky eater more agency in the kitchen, invite him grocery shopping or into the kitchen so he can gain some independence with eating. Offer him choices when planning meals so he feels in control. The trick is to keep it simple by offering no more than 3 options. Your child still relies on you to create a balanced meal, so offer alternatives from the same food group: “would you like broccoli or beets with dinner?” “do you prefer sweet potatoes baked whole or cut into fries?”
Use preferences to your advantage
Many picky eaters with autism and SPD have rigid preferences for certain textures, colors, or even specific food brands. Many parents I work with feel trapped by these restrictions, but I like to flip the perspective: your child is clear about what he will eat, so take that and work with it! Serve what your child likes and then use his preferences to introduce new, similar foods. For example, if he likes crunchy chips, offer foods with a similar texture or flavor, like thinly cut baked potato slices or carrot sticks with a favorite dip.Try mixing up the type of cheese offered in her favorite mac-n-cheese or incorporate a new macaroni shape. Get creative!
This way of introducing new foods is called food chaining, This is an excellent book to learn more about it.
Encourage good behavior with immediate positive reinforcement. Use clear language to reinforce specific behaviors by saying things like “Great job trying the carrots tonight!” and “Thank you for sitting calmly with us while we finish eating.” Just ignore behaviors you don’t want to see repeated (easier said than done, right?).
Remember: you can do this
Start small. Try one thing at a time. Be patient. Change won’t happen overnight. I love sharing with parents that some children need to meet a new food 15 or more times - yes, 15 or more! - before eventually deciding to eat it. Throw in complicating factors that are common with ASD and SPD like food aversions, behavior challenges, and regular old picky eating, and you can see that change can take time. Take a deep breath, and remember: you’ve got this!
If these strategies don’t seem to be working, I suggest seeking the help of a professional like a registered dietitian (that’s me!), occupational therapist, or speech pathologist.
* Be sure to grab my FREE Picky Eating Guide if you don’t have it already *
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