Picky Eaters with Autism: 5 Strategies to Improve Mealtime

Picky Eaters with Autism

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Does autism cause picky eating?

When we talk about food, we all have our preferences, but what happens when those preferences turn into aversions, especially for individuals with neurodevelopmental disorders? Picky eaters with autism pose not only a challenge but also a concern for parents and caregivers trying to introduce new healthy foods into their loved one’s diets.

If you identify with the above, you may be wondering, does autism cause picky eating? While there is no direct evidence, it does have a link since individuals with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) may experience sensory sensitivities that affect their relationship with food, which can manifest in forms of selective eating or specific aversions. Moreover, according to the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, around 46 to 89% of individuals diagnosed with ASD display selective eating behaviors, so you are not alone in this battle.

At ABA Centers of Virginia, we understand that your children’s feeding and nutrition are fundamental to their development and that this may be causing you anxiety. So, keep reading this blog, where we will provide valuable strategies for improving mealtimes.

What Causes Picky Eating in Autism?

Picky eaters with autism can be understood from various perspectives, considering both biological and sensory factors that influence their food preferences.

Child refusing to eat

Firstly, individuals with ASD may exhibit heightened sensory sensitivity, which can impact their response to specific food stimuli. This impact can manifest as an aversion to certain textures, colors, smells, or tastes that may be overwhelming or unpleasant for them. This sensory sensitivity can lead to dietary restriction, where individuals will prefer foods that are familiar or possess certain specific sensory characteristics, avoiding those they perceive as aversive.

For example, a child with autism may experience an intense aversion to foods with viscous or sticky textures, such as mashed potatoes or jelly, due to their sensory sensitivity. This aversion can be so strong that the child adamantly refuses to try these foods, preferring instead more familiar and comforting options like cookies or bread.

At a biological level, autistic individuals show a high prevalence of gastrointestinal disorders. It influences their eating behavior and leads to the avoidance of certain foods perceived as triggers for gastrointestinal discomfort. For instance, a child experiencing gastroesophageal reflux may feel abdominal discomfort or pain. Still, due to difficulties in effectively expressing or communicating these sensations, their response may be to refuse to eat in an attempt to avoid the discomfort associated with food intake.

Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Reviews study emphasized a link between autism and gastrointestinal (GI) symptoms like abdominal pain, diarrhea, constipation, and reflux. Research indicates notable variations in gut microbiota between individuals with ASD and those without, hinting at a possible connection between gut health and the development of GI issues in ASD.

5 Strategies to Help Picky Eaters with Autism

Once you have ruled out underlying health problems, you can follow these five strategies to improve mealtime for your picky eater with autism:

1.Create a Nurturing and Predictable Mealtime Atmosphere

For many children with autism, the consistency and predictability of mealtimes are crucial. Establishing a calm and structured environment can help alleviate anxiety and encourage openness to trying new foods.

2. Implement Food Modeling and Sensory Strategies

Gradually introducing new foods in a secure setting can reduce resistance to experimentation. Utilize food modeling, where family members join in consuming and enjoying the same foods you will introduce to your kid. Additionally, explore sensory strategies like varying textures and temperatures to familiarize your child with unfamiliar foods.

3. Engage Your Child in Meal Preparation

Involving your child in meal preparation can boost their interest and willingness to sample new dishes. Encourage participation in kitchen activities, from selecting ingredients at the store to assisting with simple meal preparations.

Picky eaters with autism: 5 strategies to improve mealtime

4. Offer Choices and Honoring Preferences

Recognize your child’s unique preferences and provide options within a framework of balanced nutrition. Respect their choices regarding certain foods while gradually expanding their culinary repertoire.

5. Embrace Positive Reinforcement Techniques

Employing positive reinforcement can effectively encourage picky eaters with autism to explore new foods. These techniques may involve:

  • Offering praise for their willingness to try unfamiliar foods
  • Utilizing incentives such as stickers or small treats as rewards
  • Incorporating social activities they enjoy during mealtimes

Explore ABA Therapy for Comprehensive Support

If persistent picky eating habits significantly impact a child’s nutritional intake, considering ABA therapy alongside medical consultation can be beneficial. ABA providers specialize in assisting children in broadening their food preferences and addressing underlying behavioral or sensory challenges associated with picky eating. Moreover, they offer guidance to parents and caregivers on implementing effective strategies at home to cultivate healthy eating habits.

More About ABA Centers of Virginia

At ABA Centers of Virginia, we offer the support and resources needed to help neurodivergent individuals thrive. Through our ABA therapy services for children and teens in Arlington and Washington, D.C., we focus on building essential life skills that empower those with autism to overcome obstacles and lead fulfilling lives.

With our strategies for addressing picky eating and the compassionate guidance of ABA therapy, many parents have seen remarkable improvements in their children, leading to brighter futures and greater happiness.

For more information about our autism care services in Virginia, please call us at (855) 957-1892 or schedule a free, no-obligation appointment to discuss your insurance benefits. 

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