Autism Eating Habits, Autism And Picky Eating, Autism And Food Refusal — Autism Specialty Group (2024)

Autism eating habits, such as picky eating and the refusal of new or unfamiliar foods, challenge many parents. While these eating behaviors are common among all children, they are especially pronounced among children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). In fact, the journal Research in Autism Spectrum Disorders published in 2019 that atypical eating habits affected over 70% of all children with ASD.

There are many reasons for this behavior, and since autism is a spectrum disorder, the manifestation and severity of symptoms will vary from child to child. There is, of course, the danger that undernourishment presents to proper development, and parents need to be mindful of their children’s eating habits and encourage a healthy and balanced diet.

But how do you get picky eaters to try new foods? Autism eating habits can be frustrating and distressing. But some solutions may help, including therapy and at-home tips, which we will discuss later. First, to better understand the problem and the risks, we need to take a closer look at the relationship between atypical eating behaviors and autism.

Autism and Picky Eating: a Sensory Consideration

Sensory preferences and aversions are often a component of autism and picky eating. ASD children may like the feeling of softer foods, such as yogurt, while harder or crunchy foods may feel difficult or even painful to eat. According to the study cited above, autistic children most commonly like chicken nuggets and grain products, such as pasta and bread.

Autistic children frequently display strong positive or negative reactions toward particular flavors or scents. They will gravitate toward the comforting sensory experience of their preferred foods while avoiding others. Limiting their food selection to just a few items is one of the most common ASD eating behaviors, followed by a hypersensitivity to certain food textures.

While these tendencies to accept certain foods and always refuse others are consistent with autistic children’s sensory sensitivities and need for routine and repetition, they can leave parents puzzled as to how to nourish their children properly.

The Physical Conditions beneath Autism and Food Refusal

Sensory issues aren’t the only link between autism and food refusal. Other physical conditions may be responsible for the unpleasant experience of eating more than a few types of food. Autistic children are at an increased risk for gastroenterological disorders that can make eating painful. These include:

  • Constipation - Diets with little variety often lead to constipation, which can leave children feeling bloated and disinterested in eating.
  • Acid Reflux - Digestive acids washing up into the throat can cause serious irritation that makes eating painful.
  • Dysbiosis - This imbalance of healthy gut bacteria causes abdominal pain, diarrhea, gas, and other symptoms.
  • Eosinophilic esophagitis (EoE) - An allergic condition that leaves the esophagus painfully inflamed, making it difficult to swallow.

As a result, mealtimes can produce high levels of anxiety in children with ASD. When asked to try a food they are afraid they won’t like, they may act out by refusing to stay seated or throwing utensils. Additionally, they may become upset if different foods on the plate touch each other.

Over time, though, these eating habits may impact their physical development. Children with ASD often have underdeveloped muscles for biting, chewing, and swallowing, which increases their difficulty in tolerating new foods. This is why autistic children are more prone to developing digestive conditions and eating disorders.

How to Get an Autistic Child to Eat

Scheduling a consultation with a therapist who can recommend a personalized treatment plan is an important step in helping children adjust their behaviors. They’ll perform an assessment, prescribe a course of one-on-one sessions, monitor the child’s progress, and adjust the plan as necessary.

Intervening as early as possible is crucial for helping ASD children develop better eating habits. While this article focuses on picky eating, autism, and food obsession, overeating is another serious issue that therapists treat. The point here is that parents of autistic children often need professional assistance in helping their kids have a healthy relationship with food. At home, parents can try these tips for getting their children to eat a more nutritious diet:

  1. Introduce Only One New Food at a Time
  2. Give Small Tastes at First
  3. Pair New Foods with the Child’s Preferred Foods
  4. Slowly Reintroduce Previously Rejected Foods
  5. Tell a Story about the Food that Makes It Appealing
  6. Make Trying the New Food a Choice, Not a Command
  7. Place New Foods on Separate Plates

And remember, try not to force a child to try a new food, or trick them into eating it by hiding it inside something they enjoy. Children have to have a sense of trust before they’ll be willing to eat something they might be scared they won’t like. Finally, while autism eating habits can be discouraging for parents, try to be patient. Showing the child love and acceptance are always the most essential things for the child’s overall wellbeing.


Autism Eating Habits, Autism And Picky Eating, Autism And Food Refusal — Autism Specialty Group (2024)
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