Autism and eating is a hot topic among parents with a child on the autism spectrum.
And with good reason.
While fussy eating is common among many children, having a picky eater with autism can be much more extreme. Some kids with ASD have gastrointestinal issues they can’t verbalize, others have strong food texture issues, some have sensory eating issues regarding certain tastes and smells, and still others have rituals around food that make it impossible for them to eat anything that’s not a certain color, brand, food group, etc.
Whatever the reason for your child’s picky eating, it can be extremely frustrating and challenging, not to mention worrying, but I’m here to tell you there’s hope.
There are things you can do to help a picky eater with autism.
Will these strategies work overnight?
But I’m a big believer in the idea that good things come to those who work hard and persevere, and feel the long-term success far outweighs the short-term pains when it comes to figuring out the autism and eating puzzle as it relates to your individual child.
Here are 8 tips to help a picky eater with autism
1. Focus on textures your child likes. If your child is a picky eater due to sensory issues, use that to your advantage. If she prefers crunchy foods over soft textures, focus on finding healthy options that appeal to her, like celery, carrot sticks, crisp apples, and granola bars. Still struggling? Get creative! Pop some blueberries, strawberries, and banana slices in the freezer overnight, add Grape-Nuts Cereal to Greek yogurt, try Martha Stewart’s Cornflake-Crusted Baked Chicken recipe…you get the idea.
2. Relinquish the control. A great strategy to help a picky eater with autism is to offer more control. Take your child grocery shopping with you, get her involved in the kitchen, and give her choices when dishing up meals. The trick is to find a good balance. You want your child to feel as though she has a choice in what she eats, but you still want to ensure she is eating a healthy and nutritious diet. Instead of giving her the option between vegetables and cookies, offer her 3 choices within the same food group: carrots, peas, or green beans?
3. Limit snacks and drinks between meals. If autism and eating go hand-in-hand in your household, ensuring your child is hungry at mealtimes can go a long way in getting her to try new things, so try and limit snacks and drinks. Just be careful not to go too long between meals as extreme hunger can have a negative impact on a child’s behavior, making her even less likely to try new foods!
4. Always offer something your child likes. Creating a meal that is completely devoid of foods your child will eat is a recipe disaster. A better strategy is to offer 3 foods she likes and 1 or 2 things you’d like her to try without any expectations attached. The less threatened she feels, the better.
5. Never give up! An occupational therapist once told me it can take up to 10 exposures to a new taste to determine if you like or dislike it, so even if your little one refuses green beans the first 3 times you offer them, keep trying. And then try again!
6. Appeal to your child’s senses. I read a fabulous article not too long ago that was written by a boy who struggles with autism and eating, and he said that food smells can make a huge difference in whether or not he’ll try a new food. And if you think about it, this makes total sense! How many times has your stomach growled in response to the smells coming from a local restaurant or something your neighbor is cooking? And how often have you smelled something unappealing that made you plug your nose in disgust? Even if your child doesn’t enjoy helping out in the kitchen, make sure she’s in close proximity when you’re cooking things you feel will tempt her appetite. She may surprise you!
7. Write a social story. Created by Carol Gray, Social Stories are written descriptions of everyday situations and events told from a child’s perspective. The intention behind Social Stories is to give a child something to rehearse so she’s prepared once the situation described actually takes place. This can be an excellent tool to help encourage a picky eater with autism to try new foods. Here are 21 templates and apps to help you easily write a Social Story for your child.
8. Remain positive. As frustrating as the world of autism and eating is, remember to stay calm and remain positive. While it may seem like your little one is deliberately trying to break your spirit at mealtimes, rest assured that the situation is more stressful for her than it is for you, especially if she has food texture issues and/or sensory eating issues. Take a deep breath, slap a smile on your face, and focus on your child’s wins, no matter how small they might be.
If none of these strategies work, I strongly suggest seeking the help of a professional. Speak to your doctor to rule out medical challenges, and set-up a meeting with an occupational therapist who has experience with autism and eating for additional support options.
Being the parent of a picky eater with autism can be very challenging, especially when you’re already hanging onto your sanity for dear life, but my hope is that this collection of tips will give you some practical ideas to help make mealtimes less stressful.
And if your child continues to be a picky eater no matter what you do, remember these words:
Autism doesn’t come with a manual.
It comes with a parent who never gives up.
I have no idea who first thought to string those words together, but they are so very, very true!
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