It is relatively common for children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) to demonstrate severe eating problems. In fact, children with autism are five times more likely to struggle with eating issues compared to their neurotypical peers. Parents of children with autism often seek reliable information and advice about how to encourage and instill healthy eating habits in their kids.
They are likely to eat only certain kinds of food and, as a result, they are not taking in a well-balanced, nutritional diet. To offset some of these dietary concerns, experts have tried to come up with strategies and solutions for families of children with autism as they navigate certain eating issues.
The Factors That Affect Your Child’s Eating Habits
In order to understand exactly what’s going on with your child’s diet, begin by thinking about these three aspects of your child’s health:
- Medical issues.
- Behavioral issues.
- Environmental issues (which are often related to sensory difficulties).
Carefully consider all of these factors as you create an eating plan. Your doctor, dietician and team of medical professionals will help by providing you with a snapshot of your child’s overall health. From there, you can begin to implement strategies that make sense for your child’s dietary needs.
There are many valuable resources available to you about autism and eating habits including books, websites and university studies. Brenda Legge’s 2002 book, “Can’t Eat, Won’t Eat: Dietary Difficulties and Autistic Spectrum Disorders” studies common food-related issues that affect children with autism.
Websites like autismspeaks.org have useful information developed by experts in the field of autism, with practical advice about how to tackle eating difficulties. There are peer-reviewed studies available online that will help you understand the nuanced behaviors children demonstrate.
If you haven’t connected with the Autism Treatment Network, consider learning more about this collaborative system of hospitals, doctors and researchers, available to families in need. The ATN’s organizational structure almost guarantees that you will find the resources and support you’re looking for as you work through your child’s dietary plan.
Working On A Plan
Now that you’ve decided to build a workable plan, the first step is to create a record of your child’s eating habits and gather his or her medical records. Once you have a detailed log compiled, have your doctor examine your child so that you know which areas of nutrition you will need to focus on. After your initial medical assessment, begin thinking about behavioral issues that may impact these goals.
This process will require patience as you are seeking to understand where these dietary issues are stemming from and find out how to mitigate those circumstances to help improve your child’s diet. Autism-related sensory aversions are often connected to eating problems and may provide insight into your child’s eating habits.
Consider each of these three broad aspects of your child’s health that affect their overall eating and dietary habits.
The most important step toward implementing an eating plan is to know which food-related factors are problematic for your child. By creating a detailed eating history, you will be prepared to provide a snapshot of your child’s habits up to this point.
Here’s what the eating history should include:
- Any details of choking, coughing or gagging while eating.
- Any loss of oxygen (face turning blue) while eating.
- Any pattern of liquids or foods that come out through your child’s nostrils while eating.
- Recurring respiratory issues or history of pneumonia.
Together with your dietician, pathologist and therapist, you can come up with a well-rounded, informative feeding assessment. Although various diets have different effects on children, you will have the information you need to build a strategic mealtime plan for your child.
Different dietary plans have proven effective in treating children with autism spectrum disorder including:
- Gluten-free, Casein-free (GFCF).
- Sugar-free diet.
- Dye-free diet.
- Specific Carbohydrates diet.
Talk with your health care provider to learn more about how these diets may work with your child’s specific eating habits. Now that you’ve gathered the medical information necessary to understand your child’s health needs, you can focus on other, influential aspects of your child’s health.
Children with autism are susceptible to routines, so it’s important to respect their needs while slowly implementing mealtime interventions. Some children demonstrate an array of eating-related difficulties that present complex, often multi-layered issues that must be handled with care.
Some common behavioral problems that affect eating include failure to thrive, rumination, pica, obesity and anorexia nervosa. While many eating issues among children with autism may not be as severe, it is important to be on the lookout for these disorders so that you can advocate for your child.
Let’s discuss some behavioral interventions that have proven effective in treating eating issues in children with autism.
1.Create positive mealtime routines
- Make sure meals happen around the same time every day to ensure predictability.
- Do not allow snacks in between mealtimes.
- Establish appropriate seating behaviors.
- Focus on mealtime by limiting distractions like TVs or technologies like iPads or laptops.
2. Make mealtime fun!
- Always give positive feedback and praise for appropriate eating.
- Encourage your child to taste, smell and describe the food while eating.
- Allow your child to be an active participant in meal preparation.
- Create a post-mealtime rewards system for positive behaviors.
3. Implement these strategies as you make progress
- Shaping (changing response to food): Slowly introduce food in least-intrusive ways, gradually add more and increase tolerance to food by encouraging interactions like touching, smelling and describing.
- Fading (changing food-related stimulus): Slowly change the volume of food, change plates or cups gradually, rearrange seating and decrease rigidity by implementing slow progression of changes.
- Food chaining: Introduce new food next to similar but different foods, continue to slowly pair similar food with different kinds of food.
- Positive reinforcement: Use praise after demonstration of positive behavior, the reward should be immediate, consistent and valuable (worth the effort), try to identify reinforcers that work with your child.
As you strategize about behavioral challenges, remember to implement one intervention at a time. Always try to have fun and praise your child for a job well done. Continued practice and patience should result in positive changes.
Food-related issues in children with autism are often exacerbated by environmental factors. Selective eating can be tied to sensory regulation. By carefully observing your child’s eating habits and the environmental factors that affect those habits, you can begin to implement strategic interventions that will lead to healthier outcomes.
Considering specific sensory details related to food may help you better understand these obstacles. Here are some common environmental factors that may be affecting your child’s eating habits.
- Children with autism tend to prefer kinds of food that fall into one of these categories: sweet, sour, bitter or salty.
- Your child may favor this flavor and ignore the rest.
- This preference is closely tied to the temperature of food.
- Your child may only prefer food that is served at room temperature and may shy away from kinds of food that are too hot or too cold.
- Children with autism may have a strong preference for foods that are crunchy or smooth.
- Introduce foods with similar textures, or foods that can be modified to have similar textures.
- Be aware of odors that may be affecting your child’s ability to eat.
- Some children are much more sensitive to smells and the smell of food.
5. Look or Visual presentation
- Your child may be particular about the color or presentation of their food.
- Whenever possible, try to slowly introduce food or routines that are closely related to their visual preferences.
Whether you’re just beginning to learn about healthier eating habits for your child, or have tried a few different mealtime strategies, there are resources available to guide you through the process. By gaining a comprehensive understanding of your child’s health, creating positive mealtime routines and implementing behavioral strategies that are proven to work, you are advocating for your child and yourself.
With the help of your team of experts and a bit of patience, you will start to see results. Every year, more and more research is published about ASD and eating habits, which assist professionals in the field and help ensure a healthier future for children on the autism spectrum.
At Lexington Services we are happy to help children to improve their lives through professional services and interventions. Our caring professionals can help your child in-center or in-home. Contact a member of our staff today for more information.
Click here for more insights from Lexington Services.