Autism and Choosy Consuming: Why Do Youngsters on Spectrum Battle with Meals?
Guest contribution by Andréas RB Deolinda, BA, BSc
It is quite common for children to go through a period of picky eating habits. As their children develop food preferences, parents may have difficulty getting their child or toddler to eat anything other than their favorite meals. Many children cry or have tantrums in protest when they are forced to eat meals they do not want to eat.
Although fussy eating is common in children with autism, it is not limited to the child’s neurocognitive abilities; Any child can be a picky eater. However, in the context of children with the autism spectrum, picky eating can often be a result of sensory difficulties and other problems.
When trying to break down an autistic child’s picky eating habit, parents need to assess what might be causing the behavior. Once this is understood, the process of making meals more comfortable and manageable can begin.
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Why are children picky eaters on the spectrum?
Let’s examine some of the reasons many autistic children are picky eaters.
Some reasons for selective eating are sensitivity to factors such as smell, temperature, texture, and color. This sensitivity is often referred to as sensory defenses or sensory hypersensitivity.
The sensory defense in the form of touch is called tactile sensitivity. In the case of Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), if the child is sensitive to certain tactile textures or stimuli, they can lead to aversion or negative behavioral reactions. Therefore, it is possible that many autistic children who are selective eaters have difficulty with food structure.
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The gastrointestinal tract refers to the passage of food from your mouth to your anus, passing through various organs such as the esophagus, stomach, small intestine, and colon. When a person has gastrointestinal problems, it means that there is an abnormality somewhere on that journey that is making food difficult to process properly. Such abnormalities seem to be more common in people on the autism spectrum.
For example. a child may have difficulty swallowing food, which could indicate an abnormality in the esophagus and could cause the child to choke while eating. If your child has difficulty processing food, this may be the cause of picky eating as the child is careful about which foods are more difficult to consume than others.
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Starting from the concept of gastrointestinal problems, if your autistic child experiences pain while eating or after eating, it makes sense that they be a picky eater.
Pain can be caused by mouth problems, constipation, or acid reflux. Acid reflux occurs when stomach acid or bile rises up the esophagus (the lining of the esophagus) instead of staying in the stomach.
Oral motor difficulties
Some autistic children may have difficulty controlling the muscles that surround the mouth and allow the mouth to move – the lips, oral cavity, teeth, hard and soft palates, tongue, and salivary glands. This makes it difficult for the child to move food around in their mouth and may mean that they prefer liquid or soft food as it is easier to process.
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Some children stick to their food preferences because they prefer things to stay the same. They like consistency and predictability in their life, and one way to achieve this is to only eat certain types of foods. A picky diet could be due to a child developing a preference for a certain type of food and wanting to stick to it to make them feel in control.
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Rule of thumb: take care of your child
As mentioned earlier, the first thing to do is understand what a child’s picky or selective eating habits may be causing in the hope of solving picky food. Since some autistic children struggle with communication, it may take some detective work to figure out which of the above causes could be the reason for their picky food.
If you are an autism parent, it is always worth considering:
If your autistic is non-verbal or semi-verbal and doesn’t know how to express their pain or frustration, teach your child to use other ways to communicate their thoughts and feelings to you. Use face cards, AAC devices, or sign language – any non-verbal form of communication your child understands to express themselves.
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Consult your doctor
If you suspect your child has a disease that causes selective eating, or if your child is in pain from eating certain foods, see a doctor. There may be a medical explanation for the problem and there could be a simple solution.
Of course, if you’ve considered all of the above and your child is still a picky eater, they might be a little picky! Below are some tips that may potentially improve your child’s eating habits.
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Helping children with autism try more foods
Social stories help autistic children understand the nuances of social interaction and communication in a fun and easy way. Customizing social stories to teach better eating habits is a good place to start.
I haven’t met a child who doesn’t like to snack. If your snack cabinet is easily accessible for your child, move it around! Your child may sneak in a lot more snacks than you think, and surprisingly, while eating, they hear the familiar sound: “Mom! I’m not hungry.”
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Stick to a schedule
Many autistic children enjoy routine. Hence, when it comes to changing your child’s picky eating habits, stick to their meal times and try to ensure as much consistency as possible. Whether it’s snack time, lunch or dinner, don’t keep changing the time of day, where your child eats, what utensils are used, or other factors that don’t need to be changed.
Take your timing into account
Many autistic children experience overstimulation at times, and the stress and anxiety caused by their sensory sensitivities are exhausting. So when trying new foods, introduce them to your child at a time of day when they are most productive and the environment is conducive to their sensory needs.
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Do not rush it!
Introducing new foods can be a daunting experience, especially if your child becomes anxious about trying new things. Start with a small serving of food and introduce one meal at a time until he or she gets used to it. You will find that he or she is more willing to try something different if the first new food is successful.
This is how eating is fun
Nothing attracts a child more than knowing that it will not be a class but a fun time! Children understand how to play, so take advantage of what your child enjoys and make eating a pleasure. Make it colorful, make it exciting, whatever you need to do to make your child comfortable.
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When it comes to picky food and children with autism, many factors play a role that influence behavior. It is always wise to rule out an underlying medical condition before introducing new foods.
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