Parents worldwide can relate to the difficulties often faced regarding feeding children, and naturally, concerns can arise regarding their nutrition and their relationship to food.
Children with autism are much more likely to exert particularly selective tendencies regarding what they will and won’t eat.
How to Help Your Child with Autism Overcome Picky Eating
Before addressing the common autistic trait of ‘picky eating,’ it’s essential to ensure that there are no underlying medical conditions at the root of the issue. It can be understandable to conclude that a challenge such as fussy eating is directly related to being on the spectrum. However, not only can stresses related to autism cause health issues that affect appetite or eating, but like any child, there could be an underlying condition, such as acid reflux, that makes eating an unpleasant experience.
Additionally, find ways to supplement their nutritional needs for peace of mind to ease the process. Some beautiful products on the market can assist with this, such as vanilla ice cream flavored children’s protein powder. Mixing sources of nutrition like these into smoothies (or even ice cream) can help support your child’s health while you tackle their relationship to food and eating.
1. Eat together at the table
It’s always essential to create some daily routines for children, including some that promote connection. All children benefit from routines, especially those with autism. Treating different areas as environmental cues (such as the dining table for eating together) can help further anchor some calming structure.
Autistic children learn a lot through imitation, which makes eating together regularly even more helpful in establishing good habits. For example, naturally picky eaters may be more inclined to try a new food if they regularly see other people doing so with no fuss.
2. Take it easy
For many children with autism, mealtimes can evoke feelings of anxiety, a feeling that can only be exacerbated by piling on the stress and expectation. If your child struggles with sensory aversions and fear trying new foods, it is more likely that they will shut down when additional pressure is added. A relaxed approach is vital to prevent them from feeling pushed into a state of ‘fight or flight.’ It’s important to remember that they aren’t purposely trying to be defiant – their little nervous systems may be charged and ready for a battle, and they need the most help with their emotional regulation.
It can help to intentionally invest a little time in a relaxing exercise before mealtime. For example, breathing exercises, blowing bubbles, singing, playing, or any other soothing or stimming activity your child responds well to may help to create a lighter mood ready for eating.
3. Baby steps
In line with taking it easy in terms of your general approach, also commit to being happy with baby steps – very tiny baby steps in some cases. Lowering your expectations will help you keep your frustration in check to avoid ruining any progress you make.
There are so many healthy foods to choose from that it doesn’t pay to get hung up on any particular one. If your child takes a bite then refuses to eat anymore, don’t make a fuss; just let them know you’re happy they tried. Encourage curiosity with food; let them look, touch, smell, and even play with their food – the lower the stress, the more likely they are to feel relaxed and open to eating what they can see their family eating.
That said, there will likely be some foods they won’t tolerate, and that’s ok. Practice using the ‘no thank you bite’ approach; let them know that they can take just one bite, and if they don’t like it, they can say ‘no thank you’ to eating anymore. This works better for some children than others, but most importantly, keep calm.
4. Persist with patience and graduate the changes
Some children with autism need multiple exposure experiences to the same foods before they are tolerated. To maintain calm all around, start with tiny amounts of new foods so they may feel suitable for finishing something new without feeling too overwhelmed, and gradually increase the servings. Patience is key here, it is not a sprint but a marathon, and the slightest stress and pressure can undo progress, so persist with plenty of patience.
5. Be specific in your praise
Children respond well to praise, but instead of dishing out lashings of generic phrases such as ‘good job’ or ‘well done,’ try to be more specific. Say things like, ‘great job trying that new food,’ or ‘I love that you stayed at the table until we’d all finished.’ Praise the good and ignore the bad as best as you can, and be specific to drive home what behavior is preferred and attract positive reactions that feel good.
Helping a Child with Autism Overcome Picky Eating
Overall, the theme is patience and lots of it. Patience requires a calm, peaceful attitude and the avoidance of frustration and stress that will only cause more challenges. Remember, your autistic child is not purposely being defiant – sensory aversions to foods is quite common, and the best way to approach it is with enduring patience and positivity.