Autism & Eating
Research indicates that children who are anxious and sensory-sensitive are more likely to have difficulties with eating. It’s not surprising then that eating problems are common and varied in children with autism. Difficulties such as only eating a very few foods, not being able to eat at school, only eating when they are on their own; going for long periods of time without eating or over eating and Pica (eating non-foods), are just a few of the difficulties that the child can experience, which can be difficult to understand and manage. Parents and carers can feel high levels of anxiety, frustration and blame if their child has difficulty with eating a healthy varied diet.
It is well documented that autistic people have significantly different sensory experiences than neuro-typical individuals which include both hyper and hypo sensitivities. In the context of eating, this means being more or less sensitive to how foods look, smell, taste & feel. Interoception (awareness of internal states) is another important factor to consider as it enables the recognition of hunger and the sense of feeling full.
Children with autism may reject a food that looks different on sight without even tasting it and may have a fear around new or different foods. The child may pay attention to the small specific details of the foods that they eat. They are often brand and packaging loyal and are not motivated to change or see the need to imitate others.
There are a number of Do’s and Don’ts that are good to keep in mind when faced with the challenge of a child with restrictive or other eating difficulties.
- Prompt – this can make a child less likely to try a new food
- Coerce – this can make a child feel more anxious
- Bribe – if a child is fearful about eating something, a bribe won’t help.
- Hiding a new food in a preferred meal as this may mean they will not eat that food again.
- Look anxious when your child is trying a new food, as they will be super tuned into you and if you appear anxious so will they be.
- Allow your child to eat the foods that they like.
- Model eating new foods in front of the child, without the expectation that they will want to try it.
- Play games involving food that are fun, involve touching, seeing and smelling new foods.
- Involve them in preparing meals so they can touch, smell and see the food.
- Place small bowls of food with new items on the table so the child can choose to try or not.
- Look calm and be positive if they try a new food.
There are a number of books that can provide further insight and understanding of the range of eating difficulties a child with autism may experience. There are many more books available but these were recommended to the AST by Occupational Therapy.
- Just Take A Bite: Easy, Effective Answers to Food Aversions and Eating Challenges! By Lori Ernsperger and Tania Stegen-Hanson. Pub Future Horizons ISBN-10: 1-932565-12-4
- Meals without Tears: How to get your child to eat healthily and happily. By Rana Conway. Publisher Pearson Education Limited ISBN100273712683
- Food Refusal and Avoidant Eating in Children including those with Autism Spectrum Condition: A practical guide for parents and professionals. By Dr Gillian Harris and Dr Elizabeth Shea
Looking online the National Autistic Society, The Sensory Integration Network and Cornwall Autism Spectrum Team websites are also good sources of information and ideas.
If you are worried about your child’s eating habits, weight loss or gain then initially contact your G.P. for initial advice.