If there is one subject in common amongst parents, then is this one: ‘’What does your child eat’’?. Every new parent (and not-so-new ones alike!) talk about what their kids eat, how they eat, what they dislike, and what they accept.
Most parents are aware of what they can feed to their children; they may also be aware of what they should expect throughout the different stages of development of their son or daughter, and, in turn, they know how to promote a healthy eating habit.
But, what happens when your child has autism? How is their eating habits going? What are they like each time they sit on the table, or when you give them some food? Because one of the most common issues that kids with Autism have is that they also have food aversions!
In fact, it is fair to say that many children will probably face some sort of eating problem, especially if they do not like or agree with the food that you are serving them. However, when a kid with autism is persistently denying and refusing food, then this could also lead to other types of issues.
So, are you looking into ways of expanding your child’s narrow diet? Are you searching for alternatives that will gently lead your child to try new foods? Then continue reading this article, it’s written just for you!
Picky eaters and Autism
Most children are picky eaters at some point in their lives. As a parent, you have probably heard the ‘I don’t like this banana’ one day, and then the next day they will eat five bananas in one go. It’s a normal part of a child’s life, especially when they start discovering their personality.
Now, can you imagine what is like when a child is on the spectrum and they consistently refuse to eat? If you are their parent, then it is definitely heartbreaking to see them behave in such a way without realizing the harm they can be causing within their bodies.
Yet, try to see it how they see it, they are simply denying something they don’t think they like. They will probably try whatever it is that you are offering them if it was presented in another way or if it had a different color, or even if it smelled different.
One of the main characteristics of the spectrum is that it shows in diverse ways, thus children (and their tendencies) will never be the same to one another.
In addition, ritualistic eating is another behavior an autistic child may have. This means that they have a favorite food selection of only a few items or so; therefore, whenever they are about to eat, they will always choose their favorite piece of food first, or they would put everything separated from what they love, or they will even ask their carers to take everything out except their favorite food.
Sometimes kids with autism can also have a meal-related tantrum or full-on meltdown because their expectations are not being met. So, how can you, as a parent or carer, avoid this? How can you help your kid with autism feel happier whenever they are about to eat or when you give them food?
Here are some strategies to address picky eating in kids with autism:
- Seek medical help
Did you know that there might be some medical problems and this is the reason why your child is acting that way? For example, maybe you have seen your child clamping their lips shut whenever you are trying to offer certain foods?.
This may be because they know that whatever you are offering can cause gastrointestinal distress in their bodies, and because they don’t have the necessary tools to explain and describe this they immediately (and literally!) shut their mouths, rejecting your food.
If this is the case then talk to your doctor and see what they have to say. You may learn how to deal with this issue in particular or you may receive new options regarding what your child can eat.
If your child is continually refusing the food you are offering or if you start noticing any other type of eating difficulty, then you should seek medical help that will evaluate the situation you are in. They will also determine the necessary steps to take in order to maximize feeding and, as a result, the way your child eats will improve.
- Try to stay calm
This advice goes to all parents regardless of whether their child is on the spectrum or not. If you think about it, children go from only drinking milk throughout the first couple of months of their lives to slowly increasing the intake of new foods.
Can you imagine what it’s like for them? All of a sudden their parents are putting new textures, colors, and flavors into their plates. So, no wonder your child is throwing that piece of broccoli away!
Did you know that many, and please understand this, many children will need to taste a certain food more than a dozen times before they get to eat it (or not). This can easily be translated to the following statement:
You may offer a tomato more than a dozen times and your child is accepting it the first few times they see it. It can go the other way around as well, and your child may never accept that same old tomato you keep on putting on the plate. One day they will love the tomato, and the next day they will absolutely hate it.
Either way, your job as a parent is to show them the availability of foods. It’s perfectly congruent for a child with autism to have a sensitivity towards food, therefore, they will likely take a longer time to accept fruits, vegetables, or any other type of food group.
This is why you must be patient and you must understand that your child is also exploring new things, so if they keep on rejecting then you keep on offering (always being respectful, of course, because perhaps they truly dislike something and this is okay as well).
Important tip: try to make meal times fun and easy! Try to avoid battlegrounds where you continuously ask them to eat, only to see some carrots thrown all over the place! Get creative, your child will appreciate it!
- Information is your key to success
Gathering information about what your child eats successfully, and how, when, and where the child eats best, can provide clues for broadening the child’s diet. The following questions should be answered:
What foods do they like? What foods do they dislike? With whom they eat the foods they like? With whom they don’t eat the foods they like? Where do they eat the foods they like? Where do they refuse to eat? When do they eat the foods they like? When do they refuse the foods they? And how does the child eat? These are some of the things you should be asking yourself, but most importantly, you should be observing the patterns that your child is drawing out for you.
Parents often discover that their child’s interest in or avoidance of particular foods is related to a common sensory experience that is associated with autism.
- Try something new with your kid!
More often than not your child may be afraid to try new things, especially when it comes to food. You can try something new to eat and you can guide them through by looking at it, touching it, and smelling it.
You could lead the way and have the first bite, and your child will soon follow the example. They may not try it the first time, but keep on presenting the food to your child.
They may even lick the food or ‘’give it a kiss’’ either way, it’s important for them to have a connection to the food they are having, so if they end up doing this, make sure you give them a positive affirmation. For you, this may not be significant, but for them, it’s definitely something completely new!
- There’s a world of textures
Many children who are on the spectrum are also hypersensitive to different textures. They may be grossed out by soft foods (like mushrooms) or they may find it hard to eat things like corn on the cob or meat.
Try giving them foods differently, for example, if they are afraid of mushrooms then perhaps you could do a mushroom sauce instead. They may like the flavor of it, but because you have always presented it in the same way, then they are not going to eat it at all.
Children with autism spectrum disorders will usually prefer one particular texture of food over another one. So, some children will like crunchy food, and others will like smooth food. So, if you are introducing a new food, then try to keep it in the same consistency as the other foods they like.
Eventually, you will be able to transition from this type of presentation to a more suitable one for both of you.
- It’s time to play!
I get it, you are a parent and you are also thinking about the millions of children around the world who don’t have a plate of food to eat. It’s a difficult thing to explain, and you even feel so guilty about it that you tell your child to ‘’not play with their food’’.
But, did you know that one of the greatest things a child can do is precisely that? They know how to play! They learn through their games! If you want, you could let them play with food until they become familiar with it.
Yet, how can you combine the play factor with the eating factor without feeling guilty? Well, you could try this: if they don’t like tomatoes by themselves you could do a tomato sauce and let them ‘’paint’’ with some broccoli!
Or you could also ask them to help you make some veggies faces, animals, or any other shape. You could even use cookie cutters to turn your veggies and fruits into what they like! The sky’s the limit, you just need to be creative about this!
- Give them choices
Children like to be in control – even if they don’t really know what this means. They are only aware of the fact that they ‘’would like to do this but my parents want me to do that’’. So, which one is going to win? Of course, this, which is the thing they want.
Sometimes, children with autism want to have control of the situation they are in, so, in this particular case, they want to be in control of what goes in their mouths. As a result, you should always offer plenty of different foods for them to have a broad variety of what they prefer to eat.
For example, instead of putting only a type of fruit, you could put two different types of fruit. One of them will be their ‘’safe’’ food or the one they really like, and the other one could be a new fruit. This way they will be in charge of what to choose.
You can always take this and turn it into an advantage by offering more of the chosen food.
- Don’t bribe them
‘’If you eat this fruit, I’ll buy you a chocolate tomorrow’’. ‘’If you eat your tomatoes, then you can watch TV’’.
When you become a parent you are probably thinking about choosing the bribe route all the time, and in all honesty, most parents feel this way, so no judging!
It is important to let your child know that you appreciate their flexibility with new food and their willingness to try something different. However, if you blatantly bribe your child, and you do so constantly, then this can, in the long run, backfire on you.
They may end up eating the food, but they won’t really enjoy it, nor they would understand why you are giving it to them in the first place. They may not try it because you are always bribing them to do something else or to eat something else later on, so they are not being mindful of what’s in front of them.
After all, you want your child to see the importance of why eating healthy and balanced food will help them in the long run as well.
Last few words
Even though this article is intended for parents or carers of kids with autism, it could be applied to kids who are not on the spectrum.
What to feed children and what they end up eating are sometimes incompatible with each other, especially among young children on the spectrum. But this incompatibility can be changed, albeit with a lot of work on your behalf.
If you feel like you cannot respond to this situation anymore and if you think your child is not obtaining the necessary nutrients they need, then have you considered seeking further guidance on this particular topic?
Even though these issues are fairly new in some areas, nowadays there are many specialists available that could guide you, support you, provide the help you and your child need.
If you do end up seeking guidance then always go for someone respectful of your child and you as a parent, and who will explain and converse with you at all stages.
Unfortunately, some specialists will even tell you to stop feeling your child until they are hungry and come to you asking for something to eat, and this could be dangerous, especially for children on the spectrum who cannot fully express themselves.
And just a friendly reminder that it will get better, and how do I know that? Because you are reading this article! Something inside of you told you, ‘’I need to get my hands into this’’ and you are now on your path of understanding, but most importantly, acting towards getting the right tools to help your child. Keep on going!