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Picky Eating and Autism: 5 Tips and Food for Thought


Individuals with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) commonly face food-related complications like picky eating. This correlation between picky eating and autism is easy to see by the numbers, as research shows that roughly 70% of children with ASD exhibit “abnormal eating behaviors.” This statistic is nearly 15 times the rate of neurotypical children of the same age. Since the emotional and behavioral problems of autism are not always easy to understand, parents and caregivers can significantly benefit from some tips to alleviate picky eating.

At ABA Centers of Florida, we have copious amounts of experience working closely with individuals who struggle with abnormal eating behaviors. As with most behavioral complications surrounding autism, understanding the root causes can shine a beneficial light on remedial measures parents and caregivers can take to help their loved ones. Let’s explore five practical tips for picky eating and autism while highlighting the reasons for these issues.

Why is Picky Eating Common in Autism?

It’s not uncommon for individuals with autism to grapple with gastrointestinal issues. Sometimes, these conditions can be mistakenly associated with specific foods, exacerbating rejection. People with autism often contend with digestive discomfort, diarrhea, constipation, and other gastrointestinal challenges. These issues can escalate stress during mealtimes and occasionally trigger meltdowns associated with food.

Motor difficulties can also significantly influence food rejection patterns. Many children with autism exhibit lower muscle tone and reduced motor coordination compared to their neurotypical counterparts. These impairments may lead to avoiding foods with harsher textures or those requiring extensive chewing. Instead, they might prefer softer-textured foods that are more familiar to them.

Children diagnosed with autism should seek guidance from a behavior specialist without delay. Consulting with an ABA professional or a developmental pediatrician can address autism symptoms that may worsen without intervention. These symptoms encompass repetitive or restrictive behaviors, a tendency towards social isolation or limited peer interactions, and a heightened likelihood of rejecting various foods.

When Does Picky Eating Develop in Autism?

Picky eating habits in autism typically begin when the child enters their toddler years; this can spawn from a refusal to eat particular foods due to texture, taste, scent, appearance, or other reasons. Limited food choices can also be an issue for children transitioning from baby food to regular food.

While parents and caregivers may feel frustrated by their child’s refusal to eat, they should understand that the underlying problems can be deeply rooted in their autism diagnosis. They can also benefit from encouraging their children to eat nourishing foods such as fruits and vegetables from a young age or even provide opportunities to try new food that may frequently cause sensory issues contributing to rejection.

5 Tips to Conquer Picky Eating and Autism

Parents and caregivers should consider these tips if their child struggles with food-related issues:

1. Introduce New Foods Through Smaller Samples – Once you know which foods your child prefers, you can slowly introduce new foods in small sample sizes. Offering new varieties with already established preferences reduces pressure to complete an entire or significant portion.

Remember that the child likely won’t finish the new food on the first introduction. However, it’s critical to remain consistent so they can gradually acclimate to the food’s presence, appearance, taste, and texture. Pairing foods with similar traits can also help; for example, if a child enjoys clementines, consider introducing carrots since they share a similar appearance and shape. Starting with small amounts helps ease tolerability before filling the plate with the new item. Remember, comfort is vital when exploring unfamiliar foods, and your child should never feel pressured or stressed when trying something new.

2. Utilize Stimulus Fading – A common practice in autism care services, stimulus fading involves gradually increasing the frequency of a feared stimulus over time to allow the child to adjust accordingly. When addressing stimulus fading in the context of food rejection, parents and caregivers can benefit from increasing the amount of food presented once the child has tasted and expressed contentment toward the item.

If the child can tolerate three consecutive bites of the new food within 30 seconds to a minute without disgust or challenging behaviors like screaming, you can increase that portion size during the next meal. Remember, this process takes time and requires deliberation and compassion to work as it should.

3. Implement Positive Reinforcement – ABA therapy and other autism services utilize various techniques during sessions, but positive reinforcement remains integral to nearly all programs. This practice can work wonders when addressing food-related issues, especially if you establish a reward or token system. Introducing positive reinforcement for picky eaters adds value to new foods by granting them points toward something they enjoy.

Token systems vary by child, so it is crucial to find a reward that motivates them. If your child tries a new food and seems to enjoy it, consider granting them extra TV time or a trip to a place they love. Ensure the child understands that their choice to try something new is a positive step that deserves a reward. If they aren’t motivated by the prize, they’ll be less inclined to try the food than they already would’ve been.

4. Consider Desensitization Practices – As the name suggests, these practices aim to desensitize children to particular objects, such as food. Desensitization is particularly important for foods that a child may not enjoy but nutritionally require. The objective of desensitization is to allow children to adjust to the presence of certain foods without them directly engaging. For example, if a child refuses to eat apples or bananas, consider putting them in the same room. Over time, they will grow comfortable around the item, allowing you to introduce it during mealtime.

When applying these practices, parents and caregivers should be careful not to encourage the child to touch, smell, or eat the food until they’ve grown accustomed to it. Once you believe you can incorporate it into a meal, remember to start with small sizes and pair the item with similar taste or texture foods.

5. Showcase the Tastiness of Nutritious Foods – Children learn by example, giving parents and caregivers a perfect chance to showcase how much they enjoy what they’re eating! When preparing your plate, consider adding items that you’re trying to introduce to your child and make it a point to comment on how good it tastes. There’s a careful balance with how you approach this – don’t be too extravagant, but don’t be overly subtle. Make it seem natural and appealing to your child without seeming like you’re “tricking” them into something they don’t want to do.

ABA Therapy Can Benefit Picky Eaters

Since sensory concerns often exacerbate picky eating, ABA therapy can significantly reduce food-related complications. Children learn to manage behavioral and emotional challenges associated with autism during ABA therapy sessions, giving them confidence and poise when trying new things.

Food issues directly impact a child’s physical health, so addressing these concerns before they worsen is always a top priority. Be sure to handle food rejection as soon as you notice any signs since a healthy child is a happy child!

Contact ABA Centers of Florida

Call ABA Centers of Florida at (772) 773-1975 or visit our website to learn more about ABA therapy or to schedule a free consultation. Picky eating and autism may seem burdensome, but our services can help you and your child excel.

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