Eating Habits in Children with Autism

As I approach my third trimester in my pregnancy, I begin to think about my upcoming role as a “new mother”. From bathing, to changing diapers and endless sleepless nights, these are some of the challenges that I will soon face. Learning about the various eating/feeding patterns that I will introduce to my child will also plague my mind, as I learn about his or her new developmental stages associated with his or her eating preferences. This is probably one of the most common topics that can be heard among various parents. Picky eaters or not being open-minded to trying new foods is usually the “hot topic”. Growing up in a Greek household, I can recall my mother being devastated by my consistent refusal to eat anything that was green, or belonging in the fruits and vegetable family. Hours would roll by as my mother made me sit at the kitchen table, staring at my dinner with disgust and trying to think of any excuse not to eat it. Fortunately, I was able to conquer my picky palate in my teens, and eventually began to expand my horizons in the culinary world by my twenties. From sushi to falafel, to a healthy kale salad, I officially love to eat food! However, this may not be the case for all children. Especially those who have Autism. “Many parents of children on the autism spectrum struggle with their child’s severe eating problems with little or no professional help. In part, this is simply due to the limited number of specialists dealing with eating and feeding disorders. Furthermore, within this limited number of specialists there are few that have much understanding and experience with children who have autism spectrum disorders. A frequently suggested strategy for many children with eating and feeding disorders involves withholding food until the child is hungry enough to eat. This approach has been shown to be dangerous and not appropriate for a child on the autism spectrum. Unfortunately, professionals as well as concerned family members and friends mistakenly blame parents of children with autism spectrum disorders for their child’s poor eating habits. Sometimes parents’ concerns are ignored and they are told not to worry since most children go through stages of picky eating and food fads.” (Marci Wheeler, M.S.W, “Mealtime and Children on the Autism Spectrum: Beyond Picky, Fussy and Fads”, With the lack of information, research and statistics relating to Autism and eating habits, many parents are left in the dark, struggling to find a suitable answer, with little support from friends or family members. In the end, parents eventually give up, and continue to facilitate poor eating habits in their child. It is also important to consider the various factors that can contribute to food preferences or rigidities in children with Autism (i.e. behavioural, sensory, and environmental). Hopefully, research can be conducted among these causes, which can lead to a plausible answer, or various therapeutic techniques in teaching our children how to tolerate and accept new foods within their diet. It is also important to note that if you are considering introducing your child on a valid eating/feeding program, please consolidate a registered dietician/paediatrician, as well as an experienced behavioural consultant and speech language pathologist for professional assistance. Strategies when introducing new food to our picky eaters:  When we prepare a new “plan” that can facilitate the eating behaviour among children with Autism, it is definitely something that should be implemented gradually and consistently. When we gradually introduce a new diet, this will not only desensitize the child, but will also get them acquainted to sensory appearance (i.e. smell, texture, look, colour, etc.) It is always best to pair a highly preferred item, or something you know your child will feel comfortable eating along with the new item. Therefore you could always exchange bites between the old and new edible choice (i.e. begin with small bites of new, and eventually build up to bigger.) In most cases, building tolerance to having the “new item” placed on the plate is something that would often occur before the child eats the item itself. Sometimes a child can tolerate the new edible item on his or her plate as long as they can comprehend that it will just stay on their plate, and without engaging in any disruptive behaviours (i.e. crying, shouting, throwing item onto floor, bolting, etc.) Consistently repeating this exposure throughout the day, on a daily schedule will help increase tolerance, along with the persistent expectation that they do not have to eat the item but to just accept the presence of it. Another great tool is peer or sibling modeling, where the child can observe someone other than him/herself eating the new item. This will not only make it easier for them to taste the food, but to also make it highly reinforcing and enjoyable social atmosphere. Finally, creating social stories and or video’s geared towards the subject of eating is also another method that can stimulate your child’s eating palate, as well as teaching them that its ok to try new things in their environment! When teaching our children to tolerate and eat new food items, it is imperative to remember that you cannot turn this positive experience into a battle, and to always reinforce when the desired behaviour is displayed (i.e. eating the new item!) Patience is the key to future success, along with positivity, consistency and the willingness to never give up.  

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