Picky eating isn’t uncommon to anyone who has or works with children. Most parents know there are only a handful of foods their children will eat, and getting them to try new foods is often challenging.
Picky eating, or food selectivity, has a much higher prevalence in children who are on the autism spectrum compared to neurotypical children.1
One study—based on parent reports—found that children on the spectrum are often limited to as few as five different types of food they will eat.2 Additionally, the study revealed that “anecdotal reports and autobiographies of individuals” on the autism spectrum cited factors such as color, smell and texture as reasons they ate some foods and avoided others.
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Traditionally, the key factors that influence picky eating are color, texture and preparation/presentation of the food, as well as smell. Bright colors can be overwhelming and cause sensory overload in children with autism, leading them to dislike foods that are brightly colored. While certain food textures do not typically bother neurotypical individuals, children with autism often have hypersensitivities that cause negative reactions to certain textures.
Smell can also be a challenge due to sensory overload for an odor that may be fine to us but is unpleasant for the child. Lastly, the preparation and presentation of foods should be considered when feeding children with autism. Combining multiple foods and flavors—such as in a casserole—can be a deterrent for picky eaters, particularly if one of the ingredients is an undesirable food. For example, if a child dislikes the texture or taste of peas, combining peas with a favorite food like pasta could potentially cause a negative reaction to pasta rather than a desired newfound interest in peas.
In fact, children with autism typically prefer foods not to be mixed or touching on their plates at all.
The long-term goal is to introduce a picky eater to different foods with the hopes that a child will learn to enjoy eating more than just a small set of desired foods. Parents often complain that their children will only eat one type of food.
Often, the parents, in their efforts to care for their children and provide nourishment, create patterns of letting their children eat only what they like. The next step is to build on the baseline and introduce new foods and help children understand there are different types of food they might also enjoy.
One tried and true method is to use a desired food as incentive for trying something new. For example, if a peanut butter and jelly sandwich is a child’s favorite food, allow the child to have a few bites of the PB&J but ask them also to try a few bites of a new food in between. This method uses the desired food—the PB&J—as a positive way to reinforce the idea of introducing a new type of food.
It’s very common for kids with autism to focus on one or two different foods they want for every meal, but the key is to get them into the pattern of realizing it’s okay to have multiple and different foods. Nutritional issues are a concern with picky eating, which is why it’s important to introduce healthy options into the child’s food repertoire.
Picky eating can create another challenge when it comes to eating in a restaurant setting. One concept that works well is to offer the distraction of a favorite toy. This can reduce the cognitive overload that a restaurant setting can provide.
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In extreme cases, it might be better for the parent to take the desired food or snack to the restaurant with them, as the primary goal should be the social experience. The primary objective is to minimize the anxiety about the setting.
For children without a “favorite” food, experiment with various foods to see what they like. Offer small amounts of food they like to see if their child also enjoys it. It’s important to utilize the whole world of food parents have access to because what may be unappetizing to them could be appetizing to their child simply because of the taste, texture, and color.
Again, the idea is to open an autistic child’s mind to the idea that different types of food exist and it’s okay to try new things. Introducing different types of food will help children get the nutrition they need as well as expand their menu options—at home or while eating at a restaurant
1 Bandini, Linda G., et al. “Food Selectivity in Children with Autism Spectrum Disorders and Typically Developing Children.” The Journal of Pediatrics. Aug. 2010.
2 Cermak, Sharon A., et al. “Food selectivity and sensory sensitivity in children with autism spectrum disorders.” National Center for Biotechnology Information. March 2013.
This article was featured in Issue 89 – Solutions for Today and Tomorrow with ASD