He’ll only eat the orange triangles. She refuses to eat anything green. Running out of the preferred snack when the clock says 11:11 causes a complete meltdown. Being a parent of a child with autism and one with specific food aversions (nearly all of them) can feel like being caught in a perpetual Bermuda triangle.
Outside of the stress of it all, there is the guilty reality that all those orange triangle chips and Louie Blue popsicles are depriving your child of much-needed nutrition. So, what to do about autism and food aversions? How do you navigate this emotional minefield with grace and the peace of mind that your child is getting the nutrients s/he needs?
First and foremost, know that you are not alone. In a meta-analysis and comprehensive review of current studies (17, to be exact), autism researchers discovered that “...children with ASD experienced significantly more feeding problems versus peers.” They also found that calcium and protein deficiencies were the most consistent nutritional red flags. If you run their numbers, children with ASD are five times more likely to have food aversions and to be highly selective about particular food selectivity.
Children are known for being picky about food in general, so having a child who is five times pickier around foods and snacks can feel debilitating. Fortunately, some of the following tricks can support both picky eaters, meltdowns, and nutrition to bring your home lives closer to center again.
If you are in the boat of feeling alone, segregated from fellow parents, or struggling to maintain daily life function due to a child with ASD, please get in touch with us ASAP. The Autism Response Team was created to educate, support, and connect parents who live with someone on the autism spectrum.
Our team of board-certified behavioral specialists and staff have curated a range of tips and tricks to support healthy eating habits and to mitigate tantrums, meltdowns, and breakdowns, as a result of food aversions and food specificity in our clients. Here are just a handful of things we recommend to keep food meltdowns to a minimum.
Children with ASD have a much harder time explaining internal feelings, such as an upset stomach or headaches. And, we also know that children with autism are prone to gastrointestinal upset. Ruling out any allergies or food sensitivities provides a baseline, so you know physical pain or discomfort is a less-likely culprit.
Of course, if the physician or dietician identifies a particular food sensitivity or allergy, you have more information to guide future food selection.
If your child with ASD is your first, or you won the lottery with a first child and had a non-picky eater, understand that picky eating is not uncommon across the childhood spectrum. Studies show that most young children have to encounter, smell and taste/try a new food up to a dozen times before they readily accept it.
Keeping this perspective in mind will help you stay calm as you work through food aversions and preferences with your child. Sensory “desensitization” around food takes a little time, but it is possible with the correct selection of time, place, and method.
The reality is that children are far more prone to behavioral upsets due to certain food additives, particularly dyes and preservatives. Ingredients shown to cause elevated distress, physical discomfort/illness, or behavioral disturbances in children without autism include:
If you have a very young child showing signs of autism or who already has an ASD diagnosis, start eliminating foods with dye (most processed foods). Also, pay attention to behaviors after the child consumes foods containing dairy or gluten to determine if certain ingredients are more of a trigger than others.
Again, this is easier for parents who have toddlers or younger children, but the less processed and nutrient-deficient foods you have in your home, the more your child only has the option to eat nutrient-rich preferences. A child can’t get fixated on Kraft Mac n Cheese if s/he’s never had it. The same is true for any chips, crackers, or sugar cereals.
Of course, if an ASD assessment comes later on in life, you’ll be more focused on introducing new options as you weed out the less nutritious ones.
If you are going to begin introducing new foods, it will require a deliberate and consistent approach to mitigate outbursts, tantrums, or debilitating meltdowns. So, if you’re child refuses to eat any other cereal than Honey-coated options, purchase a few similar looking/textured cereal options and choose a time to “sample.”
See if s/he (over the course of 10 to 12 sessions) can decide which one s/he likes best, and hopefully, you’ll be able to migrate to the new option.
Often, children with ASD are far more concerned with texture than flavor due to their hypersensitivity to physical feelings and sensations. So, an aversion to something like softer fruit or vegetables may just mean you need to prepare it in other ways. Squishy tomatoes become salsa, soft berries, or strawberries are blended into smoothies that may need to be room temperature if cold sensitivity is an issue, or yogurt may be frozen into an ice tray that makes cubes in your child’s favorite shape. You might even find your child loves “whacky foods,” like “warm fruit soup,” which also offers you the chance to sneak in carrots, a few broccoli florets, or pureed kale...
And, of course, children with ASD have tastebuds, too. So, if your child doesn’t like a certain food, you’ll need to keep experimenting. Again, provide lots of options and let your child have a sense of control as s/he learns to choose one veggie and one protein, or two proteins and one fruit, etc.
Little ones may be more apt to try noodles with tomato sauce if they’ve created a tomato sauce fingerpainting masterpiece. Veggies may be more tolerable when they’ve been used to make a face on a pizza. If your child is higher on the autistic spectrum and was diagnosed later, consider their favorite hobbies or obsessions and think about how nutritious food ingredients can be worked into models, diagrams, or somehow related to their fixations.
Are mealtimes and snacktimes a battleground in your house? Then, it’s time to get some outside support. Contact the Autism Response Team (ART). We involve the whole family and provide education, training, and support to empower our families for hope, progress, and success across all environments, developmental stages, and ages.