Overcoming Feeding Problems in a Child With Autism

Picky eating is common in autism

If you're the parent of a child with autism, there's a good chance you're raising an extremely picky eater. In fact, some children with autism are extraordinarily limited in dietary choices, selecting only two or three options and eating only those foods for years. All too often, those foods are not particularly nutritious; they may include pizza, chicken nuggets, chips, or other high-calorie, low-nutrient options. Children who radically limit their diets are, of course, eating a nutritionally unbalanced diet that may actually be harmful to their health. 


Picky Eaters with Autism are Common But the Reasons are Unclear

Picky eater
David Goehring/Flickr

No one really knows why so many children with autism are picky eaters, says Kimberly Kroeger-Geoppinger, an assistant pediatrics professor at the Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center. But there's no doubt that it's a common phenomenon. That means that parents' permissiveness is probably not the cause.

Kroeger says there are several possible reasons for autistic children's pickiness. "We know that children with autism tend to select down, eliminating one food from their diet at a time. The reasons ​could be sensory (a new discomfort with a particular smell, taste or feel), or even a randomly developed routine."


Nip the Problem in the Bud

Very often, says Kroeger, kids with autism will slowly start to reject previously favored foods. You might find that your child won't eat a certain food one day, and rejects it again the next. If that happens, he may be working toward absolute rejection of the food.

If you see that happening, start right away with the next steps in this guide! Otherwise, it's possible that your child will self-select herself down to just a few foods, served in only one way, at one particular location.


Choose a Food That's Similar to Those Your Child Likes Best

While nutrition is an important consideration, says Kroeger, it's not the most important concern when helping a picky eater build his food selections. Instead, she recommends, start with a food that's similar to those your child already eats.

For some children, it might be easiest to start with a food that has a similar flavor (trying fresh strawberries if a child likes strawberry ice cream); for others, the texture may be the most important issue (adding corn chips if a child likes potato chips).

If you do have concerns about nutrition, it's fine to give your child multivitamins. Choose the type your child is most likely to tolerate, be they crunchy, chewy or liquid.


Take Baby Steps When Introducing a Food

Many children with autism are resistant to new foods. To keep from turning the dinner table into a battlefield, it's best to choose steps that allow your child to be successful.

A first step to introducing a new food might be simply placing the food on your child's plate. If even that leads to problems, you can start by placing the food on the child's plate for only a few seconds.

As soon as your child is successful with that first baby step, reward him! Rewards vary from child to child but should include warm praise, a hug if that's something she likes, and a "motivator" such as a small amount of a preferred food or time doing a preferred activity.


Take More Baby Steps

Once your child tolerates a new food on his plate, says Kroeger, it's time to move on to the next small steps. You can customize this plan to your own child - if necessary adding or subtracting steps:

  • Touch the food
  • Smell the food
  • Bring the food to lips
  • Touch the food with the tongue
  • Take a taste of the food
  • Taste the food every day for two weeks

If a child continues to reject the food after tasting it every day for two weeks, says Kroeger, it's probably time to decide that this is just not going to be a preferred item.


Avoid Power Struggle Between You and Your Child

It's easy to get frustrated with a child who simply won't eat anything new. But it's important to avoid setting up a situation in which you and your child are vying for power. The best way to avoid a power struggle is to set the bar low enough that your child will almost always succeed.

That may mean micro-mini steps at first: sniffing a food, tasting with the tongue, and so forth. The journey may take a while. But as your child succeeds, step by step, and wins your pride and motivating rewards, you may find it a more pleasant way to set your goals.

If You Need Help Encouraging Your Child to Expand Her Diet

While it's often possible for parents to expand a child's diet without help, you may find yourself frustrated and unable to make positive changes. If that's the case, you're not alone. In fact, the problem of picky eating is so prevalent that many children's hospitals offer feeding clinics to help with the issue. These clinics specialize in helping parents to expand their children's diets despite a wide range of obstacles. To find a feeding clinic near you, just search for the term "feeding clinic" or "feeding program" in your favorite search engine, along with the name of the closest city.

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