Practical tips for dealing with fussy eating in autistic children
It’s Autism Acceptance Week this week and I thought I would collate some of my tips when it comes to fussy eating and autistic children.
My son was diagnosed with autism almost six years ago and I understand the additional struggles can arise around food.
These are some of the tips that work for us but I know that every child is different and the spectrum of feeding issues that can arise with autism are as expansive as the autism spectrum itself.
So if you have any of your own tips please do leave them in the comments as I am sure it will help other parents going through similar issues.
1. Autism & Fussy Eating
Fussy eating, selective eating and more severe food issues are very common for autistic children.
Autistic children are five times more likely to develop difficulties with feeding compared to neuro-typical children.
So first of all, don’t think that you are alone with this. You haven’t done anything wrong a s a parent if you are experiencing any of these issues and there are a few strategies that can help.
2. Sensory Sensitivity & Sensory Seeking
It is very normal for autistic children to have a more heightened sensory reaction to food.
This can be a sensory sensitivity to certain tastes, textures, smells and even temperature. They may shy away from strong flavours and colours, preferring more bland and being food.
Or on the other hand they may seek out bold flavours and crunchy textures. Or even prefer their food piping hot.
Identifying your child’s sensory reaction to food is a good place to start when trying to improve their diet.
3. The 80/20 Rule
This is something I recommend for all fussy eaters but it is particularly important for autistic children.
When trying to make any changes to their diet it is imperative that you take very small steps to minimise stress or anxiety.
A whole plate of brand new foods or foods that they usually reject will be overwhelming.
Instead fill 80% of their plate with “safe” foods and use the other 20% to introduce something new.
It’s ok if they reject it but it helps to increase their exposure to that food over time.
4. Separating Food
A big plate of mixed food can lead to sensory overwhelm for many autistic children.
Separating foods or the component parts of meals gives the child more choice and control and looks more visually appealing.
When you combine this method with the 80/20 rule it is less likely that the child will reject the whole plate of food.
I use a variety of divided plates and lunchboxes for my son but also small ramekins or silicone muffin cases are brilliant to create the same effect too.
5. Food Chaining
Food chaining is a strategy that can help children to expand the list of foods that they eat and also move a child away from one particular brand or shape of food.
Many autistic children reply on the predictability of food, for example the shape or a branded chicken nugget or the size of a pasta shape.
Food chaining involves making very small and subtle changes to these foods with the end goal of them eating either a completely new food or a healthier homemade version of a packet food.
6. Brand Dependency
It can be very common for autistic children to be dependent on one particular brand of food.
It is understandable as branded food is predictable. It looks, tastes and smells the same every time.
As parents it is easy to rely on these branded foods to ensure our child is eating. But problems can arise if that food is discontinued or the brand makes changes to the ingredients or to the appearance of the food or packaging.
If you notice that your child is becoming reliant on one particular brand then start by removing as much of the packaging as possible.
You can also mix that branded food up with other brand or similar foods.
7. Exposure & Interaction
When trying to expand a child’s diet, exposure to new foods is key.
Having that new food visible and available to them is really important, even if they don’t eat it the first few times.
Again, divided plates can help with this, allowing you to include the new food on their plate but with zero expectation that they have to eat it.
But other interactions with new foods an be really helpful too. For example, going food shopping and talking about the fruits and vegetables that are on the shelves.
Getting your child involved in food preparation is another brilliant interaction. They are getting exposure to that food but without the pressure to eat it.
8. Ask For Help
Sometimes food issues with autistic children can go beyond normal fussy eating.
A child may have physical development delays that lead to struggles with feeding.
They may have digestive or gut problems that make eating uncomfortable or painful.
Their bodies may not easily recognise normal hunger or thirst signals.
Or they may have more severe fussy or selective eating knows as AFRID – Avoidant/Restrictive Food Intake Disorder.
If you are worried at all you should speak to your GP or Paediatrician and seek a referral to a specialised doctor, feeding therapist or dietician.