Autism and Picky Eating: Why Do Children on Spectrum Struggle with Food?

Guest post by Andréas RB Deolinda, BA, BSc

It is quite common for children to go through a phase of picky eating habits. As their youngsters develop food preferences, parents can find themselves struggling to get their child or toddler to eat anything other than their favorite meals. Many children cry or throw tantrums in protest when forced to eat meals they don’t want to consume.

Although picky eating is common in children with autism, it isn’t restricted to the child’s neurocognitive ability; any child can be a picky eater. But, in the context of children on the autism spectrum, picky eating can often be a result of sensory difficulties and other issues.

When looking to resolve an autistic child’s picky eating habit, parents need to assess what may be causing the behavior. Once this is understood, the process of making mealtime more comfortable and manageable can begin.

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Why are children on the spectrum picky eaters?

Let’s explore some of the reasons why many autistic children are picky eaters.

Sensory issues

Some reasons for selective eating include sensitivity to factors such as smell, temperature, texture, and color. This sensitivity is often referred to as sensory defensiveness or sensory over-responsivity.

Sensory defensiveness in the form of touch is known as tactile sensitivity. In the case of autism spectrum disorder (ASD), when the child is sensitive to certain tactile textures or stimuli, it can lead to aversion or negative behavioral response. As such, it is possible that many autistic children who are selective eaters have difficulty with food textures.

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Gastrointestinal issues

The gastrointestinal tract refers to the passage of food from your mouth to your anus, passing through various organs, such as the esophagus, stomach, small intestine, and large intestine, along the way. When a person has gastrointestinal issues, it means somewhere on this journey there’s an abnormality that makes it difficult for food to be processed properly. Such abnormalities seem to be more common in people on the autism spectrum.

For example. a child may have difficulty swallowing food, which would signify an abnormality around the esophagus area and could cause the child to gag on food. If your child has any difficulties processing food, this may be the cause of picky eating as the child is wary of which foods are harder to consume than others.

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Leading on from the concept of gastrointestinal issues, if your autistic child experiences some form of pain whilst eating or after eating, it makes sense that he or she will be a picky eater.

Pain could arise from mouth problems, constipation, or acid reflux. Acid reflux occurs when stomach acid or bile flows up into the esophagus (the food-pipe lining) instead of staying in the stomach.

Oral-motor difficulties

Some autistic children may have difficulty controlling the muscles that surround and allow mobility of the mouth i.e., the lips, mouth cavity, teeth, hard and soft palate, tongue, and salivary glands. This makes it difficult for the child to move food around the mouth and might mean he or she prefers eating liquid or soft foods, as they’re easier to process.

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Some children stick to their food preferences simply because they prefer things to stay the same. They like consistency and predictability in their lives, and one of the ways they can achieve this is through only eating certain types of foods. Picky eating could be due to a child developing a preference for a certain food type and wishing to stick to it to help them feel in control.

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Rule of thumb: pay attention to your child

As previously mentioned, understanding what may be causing a child’s picky or selective eating habits is the first place to start when hoping to resolve picky eating. As some autistic children struggle with communication, it can take some detective work to figure out which of the above causes might be the reason behind their picky eating.

If you’re an autism parent, it is always worth considering:

Communication strategies

If your autistic is non-verbal or semi-verbal and doesn’t know how to communicate his or her pain or frustration, teach your child to communicate his or her thoughts and feelings with you in other ways. Use picture cards, AAC devices, or sign language—any non-verbal form of communication that your child understands to express themselves.

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Consult with your doctor

If you’re suspecting your child may have a medical condition causing selective eating or your child expresses pain when consuming certain foods, consult with a medical doctor. There may be a medical explanation for the issue, and there could be a simple resolution.

Of course, if you’ve considered all the above reasons and your child is still a picky eater, he or she might just be a little fussy! Below are a few tips that could possibly improve your child’s mealtime habits.

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Helping children with autism try more foods

Social stories

Social stories help autistic children understand the nuances of social interaction and communication in a fun and easy fashion. Adapting social stories to teaching better eating habits is a great place to start.

Decreasing snacking!

I have yet to meet a child that doesn’t enjoy snacking. If your snacking cupboard is easily accessible for your child, move it! Your child may be sneaking in a lot more snacks than you think, and, surprise surprise, when mealtime comes, there goes that old familiar sound: “Mommy! I’m not hungry.”

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Stick to a schedule

Many autistic children enjoy routine. Therefore, when it comes to changing your child’s picky eating habits, be consistent with his or her mealtimes and try to provide as much consistency as possible. Whether it is snack time, lunch, or supper, don’t keep changing the time of day these take place, where your child eats, what utensils are used, or other factors that don’t need to be changed.

Consider your timing

Many autistic children experience sensory overload at times, and the stress and anxiety caused by their sensory sensitivities are exhausting. So when trying new foods, introduce them to your child at a time of day when he or she is most productive, when the environment is conducive depending on his or her sensory needs.

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Don’t rush it!

Introducing new foods can be a daunting experience, especially if your child becomes anxious when trying new things. Start with a small portion of food and introduce one food at a time until he or she gets used to it. You’ll find that if the first new food item was successful, he or she will be more willing to try something else.

Make mealtime fun

Nothing attracts a child more than knowing that it won’t be a lesson but rather a fun time! Children understand play, so use what your child enjoys and make eating fun. Make it colorful, make it exciting, whatever you need to do to make it enjoyable for your child.

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Summing up

When it comes to picky eating and children with autism, many factors play a role in influencing the behavior. It is always advisable to rule out any underlying medical condition before diving into introducing new foods.

Did you enjoy this article? Learn more from Autism Parenting Magazine, the leading international publication for autism families.

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