Children who are on the Autism Spectrum may be fussy when it comes to food they will eat, just like many kids. However, some children with ASD only eat a limited range of food. Sometimes the child prefers only certain textures like crunchy, sometimes only certain flavour profiles like sweet foods. In a small subset of these children, they may not be eating enough calories and nutrients to support healthy growth and development. If you notice that your child is only eating particular foods, or your child’s pediatrician express concern about low weight, slower growth, or lack of nutrients, it is time to start finding out why your child is picky. It can all but be promised that your child isn’t refusing food to frustrate and worry you, there are always underlying reasons for the self-imposed food restrictions.
People with ASD may have selective eating habits for the following reasons:
Gastrointestinal problem. If your child shows gastrointestinal symptoms, such as slow weight gain, diarrhea or constipation, or frequent tummy ache, it is advisable to consult your family doctor or a pediatrician.
Undiagnosed food allergies. Because some kids are non-verbal, they may have had a reaction to specific foods that they were unable to report to you. It may be a good idea to consult an allergist.
Poor learning history. This situation is similar to allergies and gastrointestinal problems in that the child experiences a negative physical experience such as nausea and vomiting. However, your child mistakenly associates, and possibly attributes the symptoms to a food eaten just before the onset of symptoms. Sometimes whole classes of food, such as meat, are eliminated from a child’s diet because of such an association. Try to remember if this may have happened to your child
Sensory sensitivities may be an issue with the preference of food items with certain textures. Under - sensitive children have been observed to enjoy food items with a strong odor such as onions and olives.
Routine. Some children would like to stick to the same food items every day at the same time. This is because they prefer the same routine which makes them feel in control and secure.
Some kids find it difficult to try new experiences such as new food items.
Some kids may just be taken up with particular food items and thus unwilling to experiment.
Every child requires a bouquet of fresh, healthy foods for overall health and development that is why parents / caregivers need to tackle this as early as possible. Plus, the issue of restricted food items will probably not go away with time or age. Before trying to tackle this issue yourself, it is best to rule out any possible medical or dental causes for the avoidance. Start by talking to your child’s physician about your concerns. If the situation is serious, you may be referred to a physician who specializes in feeding disorders. There are some children who react to attempts to change their diets through behavioural means, by refusing to eat even the once highly preferred foods. This can become an extremely dangerous situation for those children, they may require hospitalization and or feeding tubes if this becomes the case. Once you and your child’s medical team are confident that your child is not in danger from a medical, dental, or severe behavioral problem, you can try to implement some diet changes at home. However, forcing the issue is not advisable as it doesn’t help nor will your child warm up to the new foods this way. A combination of strategies works best to get your child to show interest in expanding their dietary repertoire and include more food items. These strategies include:
Share meals. Regularly eating meals and snacks with your child encourages healthy eating habits and a holistic meal plan. Even if you and your child are eating different foods, your child can begin to associate eating with the comfort and relaxation of your company. Make your meal time together fun and let your child know how much you are enjoying the new and varied foods you are eating. Frequent exposure to new things in a comfortable setting sends the message that trying new things is safe, and your child may become curious about what foods you are eating.
Introduce new food items that are similar to comfort food items. Encourage the child to try new foods by introducing items that are similar in texture, color, or fragrance to the other foods that your kid enjoys. For instance if your child likes vanilla pudding, try vanilla yogurt for a healthier food with similar texture, flavor and color.
Minor changes to the presentation may work in some cases. Subtle changes in presentation of less preferred, or non-preferred food could be as simple as using a different color of plate. You can try serving a less preferred food prepared by a preferred cooking method, such as French frying sweet potatoes.
Lower your expectations. Take baby steps when introducing new foods. The first criteria that your child has to meet with a new food may be to simply tolerate the food’s presence on the plate or in a separate dish next to your child’s plate. Once your child can tolerate the food for the length of the meal, increase the expectation in very small increments. The next step for your child may be that your child has to touch the food with a utensil, or smell the food at some point the meal. You may have your child place the food in their mouth for a few seconds, then spit it out. You may be surprised at your child’s cooperation when they know going in that they don’t have to eat the food.
Introduce new items in non – meal timings and venues. Introduce food items at a store or supermarket, going through pictures in a book or electronic device, or preparing a new dish together from scratch. As the child becomes relaxed with new foods through these methods, you can start introducing new items/dishes at meal or snack times.
Most importantly, allow your child to dislike certain foods, or even groups of foods! Everyone has their own food preferences, let your child determine his or her own preferences.
We hope these simple strategies enable you to increase the food items consumed by your child. Our stomachs are our hospitals, and we must encourage and nurture healthy eating in all children.