10 Mealtime Tips For Autistic Children With Eating Challenges

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Medically reviewed by Kimberly Langdon, MD

How to Get a Child with Autism to Eat

Parents of young children often describe their kids as “fussy eaters”, refusing to try or eat a variety of foods. However, if your child has an autism spectrum disorder (ASD), they may be far more selective in what they will or won’t eat and may continue long after childhood

It is estimated that ASD affects 1 in 150 children in the U.S and disrupts the daily life of many, including eating habits. Autistic children may openly show discomfort or pain when confronted with food they don’t like, resulting in meltdowns or tantrums at mealtimes. 

How to Get a Child with Autism to Eat

While your child isn’t going to tuck in at a buffet straight away, you can take the following steps to help develop and encourage healthy eating habits for children with autism.

  1. Stick to set mealtimes
  2. Relax before meals
  3. Sit together at the table
  4. Gradually introduce new foods
  5. Slowly expand what your child already eats
  6. Explore and play with food
  7. Focus on food, not behavior
  8. Correct bad body posture
  9. Rule out underlying problems
  10. Be patient

6 Mealtime Tips for Children with Autism

Relax Before Scheduled Mealtimes

Children with autism dislike unpredictability so setting regular schedules is essential, particularly mealtimes. When you stick to set meal and snack times throughout the day, this helps your child’s body to expect and accept food at familiar scheduled times. 

Autistic children may be nervous or anxious as mealtimes approach. If your child fears unfamiliar foods, they could be suffering from sensory food aversion. They may fear the taste, color, smell or texture of certain foods, triggering sensory overreaction in the body.

In addition, forcing an autistic child to sit until they finish all their food reinforces a negative pattern at mealtimes. When this happens, your child’s stress levels rise, similar to fight or flight situations, which can cause the body to shut down hunger and lose appetite. 

Stop this vicious cycle by making the run-up to mealtimes relaxing and enjoyable. Associate pleasant, positive vibes before mealtimes such as reading, singing a song or doing fun breathing exercises.

Create a Family Unit

Environmental cues play a significant role in helping children learn. Associate the dining table for the family to sit together and eat peacefully. Don’t encourage eating in front of a screen.

Those with autism often like to imitate others. By eating together, your child copies and learns following your example; when they observe you trying new foods, they may be more willing to adventure. 

Start with a few minutes eating together at the table, gradually increasing in length, giving plenty of praise and encouragement even if food is not touched. The idea is to build a positive environment during mealtimes.

Those with autism prefer familiarity, so where possible, use the same table for all meals and solely for eating, with everyone sitting in the same place each time.

Gradual Exposure To New Foods

Some children have a strong aversion to the general appearance of food, particularly those with autism. While the severity depends on each child, reasons may include disliking the color, shape, or texture of particular foods. 

One autistic child may decide the look of an unripe banana is enough to discourage trying one. In contrast, another may fear the unripe banana to an extent they actively avoid being in the same room with one. 

To autistic children, these fears may be as real and significant as fear of spiders or snakes, so try to understand and show empathy. Expose these fears gradually to build acceptance, providing plenty of praise and encouragement.

Sometimes it is easier to identify what your child likes to eat and build upon that. The aim is to offer familiar foods with small and subtle changes. Try providing small amounts of new food similar in taste or texture to foods that your child already accepts.

Remember, autistic children like repetition and familiarity; for some, suddenly changing spaghetti to penne pasta might be overwhelming simply because of the difference in appearance. 

Positive Focus On Food

Placing a positive focus on food builds a foundation for autistic children to be comfortable and open with food varieties. Expose your child to different food textures and colors, even if they are only playing with them. 

Involving children in the preparation of meals is a fun way to expose them to different foods. Let them touch, smell, taste and interact with different food types by making shapes or molding them. 

When your child dislikes a particular food, they may exhibit negative behavior such as spitting, hitting and sulking. Try to avoid disruptive behaviors at the table and instead concentrate on the food itself. 

You can distract and engage your child in questions about the meal, the color, the texture; ask why they didn’t like it and how it can be made better. Again focus on and praise good behavior no matter how little progress is. 

Check For Other Conditions

Some children with autism may have poor muscle tone in their stomach and back. Autistic children may be unaware of how they are displaying their bodies in the context of space, so they may present with bad postures for sitting and eating.

Your child may show discomfort by fidgeting, wriggling, slouching or leaning at the table. Support them by providing cushions, using ergonomic chairs and by placing a footstool to support their feet. 

Sometimes children with autism may have medical conditions that make eating unpleasant for them. Physical problems or discomfort may include difficulty chewing, swallowing or painful acid-reflux. 

Over half of all children with autism also have gastrointestinal problems, including diarrhea, constipation and irritable bowel syndrome. Make sure you rule out these underlying issues with a medical practitioner. 

Be Patient, Yet Consistent

You may feel overwhelmed or frustrated when your child simply refuses to eat or has a tantrum. But remember that you are not alone; managing your expectations and being patient are critical. 

Take slow steps and celebrate little wins occasionally. There will be setbacks; try not to give up or be discouraged.

Children With Autism

Autism sits under the umbrella term, Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and is a lifelong neurodevelopmental condition affecting emotion, behavior, social interaction and communication. 

Studies show that autistic children can be highly selective eaters, sometimes limited to only five accepted foods. Not only are they fussy eaters, but they can be selective in utensils used for eating as well. 

Long-term problems

Food selectivity in those with autism can typically extend into adulthood which can be concerning for a parent.  A limited diet in the long haul can lead to nutrition deficiencies, poor growth rate, or weight loss in severe cases. 

If your child is among those with high selectivity for food, consuming little to nothing each day, consider seeing a healthcare professional. Studies show that severe food selectivity and inadequate nutrition were the primary reasons for the referral of autistic children to a dietician or nutritionist.

Conclusion

  • Autistic children can be highly selective eaters, refusing to eat simply because they don’t like the look, texture, smell, or food temperature.
  • Try to create a relaxed and stress-free environment before and during mealtimes.
  • Focus on food and the child’s positive behavior, giving plenty of praise and avoid disruptive behavior.
  • Sometimes other medical conditions such as gastrointestinal problems may cause autistic children to refuse food.
  • Be understanding and patient. Take little steps to overcome food fears gradually. 
  • A limited diet in the long term causes poor growth and development in the child.
  • Developing healthy eating habits in an autistic child is a marathon, not a sprint. 

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Health Canal avoids using tertiary references. We have strict sourcing guidelines and rely on peer-reviewed studies, academic researches from medical associations and institutions. To ensure the accuracy of articles in Health Canal, you can read more about the editorial process here

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Medically reviewed by:

Kimberly Langdon

Sean Newton has nearly ten years of experience as a health and fitness writer, focusing on diet and its effects on your health. He also is an avid athlete and martial artist, specializing in bodyweight exercises and movement training. Together with an evidence-based approach to good health, his goal is to lay out the facts for readers, so they can make informed choices.

Medically reviewed by:

Kimberly Langdon

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