It is important to stress that all of the following ideas are just suggestions and what works for one person with an ASD may not work for another.
With all of these strategies, make sure that any instructions you give your child are clear, consistent and delivered in a calm manner. If your child refuses a food, try not to give too much attention to this.
Using visual supports to give your child information about the food they are eating could help to reduce any anxiety. Your child can refer to a visual support, such as a food chart, so that they can see what they will be eating and when they might have a chance to try something new. For example:
- List the menu for the day or week ahead and have a section at the bottom stating 'This week or today I will try [name of food]'
- Have a list of good and bad foods and let your child pick one from each list
It may be important for your child to have regular, set mealtimes. If this is an issue then try to allow yourself a little flexibility while still giving your child the structure they need. For example:
- Say that lunch will be between 12.15-12.30
- Say that you'll do another activity first (eg, some colouring) then have dinner.
If your child is over- or under-sensitive to certain food textures, smells, tastes or colours, think about how you can use this to introduce new foods. For example:
- Puree foods (including new foods) if your child is very sensitive to textures, and try to progress slowly from there
- Use food colouring if there is a certain colour your child likes, or is averse to.
Small steps - gradual exposure
By breaking down the introduction of foods into manageable steps it can reassure your child and make them feel in control. Try to introduce new foods separately from mealtimes so that mealtimes remain a relaxed and pleasurable experience. For example:
- place a new item of food on the table
- then place a small piece on your child's plate
- try to get them to touch it
- try to get them to hold it to their mouth
- try to get them to lick the new food
- see if they can put the food into their mouth, but not swallow
- then ask them to swallow.
See if you can reward your child's successful attempts at trying new foods. For example:
- Give your child a new food and a favourite food. With each small taste of a new food, your child gets some of their favourite food
- Create a behaviour chart. If your child eats a reasonable amount or, for example, three potatoes in a certain amount of time, they get a point on the chart. They could work towards a small reward.
Food books are sometimes used by professionals as diaries of achievement.
Pictures or drawings of foods that your child likes and dislikes are placed in the book - usually the food they like is at the front and the food they don't like at the back.
As your child tries new foods and expands their diet, the 'don't like' pictures are gradually moved forward in the book. This provides a nice record of progress that your child may like to look at and take encouragement from.
Encourage your child to handle and prepare food
Increasing your child's contact with food could encourage positive associations with it. Try making simple things such as sandwiches, fruit kebabs, little cakes or pizzas.
Look at the environment(s) where your child eats and see if you can make any changes if your child is experiencing sensory discomfort. For example:
- At school, they may prefer a quite room to a noisy canteen
- The chair on which they are sitting may be too hard - add a cushion
- Reduce background noise if it is distracting - turn off the radio or the washing machine
Sometimes mealtimes can be very stressful, pressurised occasions, but by introducing new foods during an enjoyable and hopefully relaxing activity your child may be more willing to try them. For example:
- Games based around food - use written instructions and visual clues, eg if you land on a particular square you have to eat two segments of orange.
Some children eat better in the company of adults or peers - your child may be more willing to try new foods if they see other people trying the same food and enjoying it.
Social stories are short stories, often with pictures, that explain different situations to people with an ASD and give them an idea of what to expect. A social story might help your child to understand why we eat and the function of food. Here is a very short example.
"We all need to eat food.
This is because food is like fuel - it gives us energy.
If we have energy, we'll be able to do the activities we enjoy."
Some parents have found that by having a child's favourite music or story tape playing in the background, the pressure of eating is removed. Their child is slightly distracted, feels more relaxed and may not find eating such a task.
Use special interest
If your child has a special interest, could you use this to encourage a more varied diet? For example, they might eat from a Thomas the Tank Engine plate, or having animal-shaped chicken pieces.
Encourage activities that develop oral motor skills, including:
- using straws
- blowing a whistle
- blowing bubbles
- using a toothbrush.
Other sensory Strategies
- Provide deep touch pressure before mealtimes and total body exercises eg press-ups, to decrease touch defensiveness.
- Apply pressure through the teeth, gums and cheeks and lips before eating.
- Use a soft toothbrush or a vibrating one to desensitise the mouth before eating. This is particularly effective to provide deep pressure to the roof of the mouth
- Try a weighted vest to provide the extra input necessary to sit still
- Try using ice pops or ice-cubes / juice cubes to desensitise the mouth.
- Minimise other distractions e.g. noise and movement in the environment.
National Autistic Society (www.autism.org.uk)
Building Bridges Through Sensory Integration (Yack, E, Aquilla, P and Sutton, S)