Table of contents
Toddlers can be picky eaters. Most of us have experienced this first hand with our own children, or we may know of a child that has a limited menu of 4 or 5 items that are the only acceptable options when their tummy rumbles. Most toddlers seem to thrive on goldfish crackers, juice, milk, and chicken nuggets. Or as many mothers would say, “they live on crackers and love.” Children on the autism spectrum are also notorious for being picky eaters. Various studies have approximated that anywhere from 50% to 80% of children on the spectrum can be categorized as picky eaters.
Food Refusal and Autism
Since autism is often diagnosed around the age of 2, this can make it difficult to determine whether your child is simply a picky toddler, or if the persistent refusal of certain foods might be a reason to suspect an autism spectrum disorder.
This, of course, has led to several studies to find out whether or not there is a verifiable connection between selectivity and refusal of certain foods and the diagnosis of autism. The results of these studies show a strong connection between eating problems and autism.
One long-term study of children born in 1991 and 1992 was conducted at the University of Bristol. The study utilized food questionnaires that were gathered at five intervals starting at six months up to the age of 4 ½. At the age of 7, 79 were diagnosed with autism spectrum disorders, and 12,901 were not diagnosed with ASD. During continued studies, researchers found that by the time a child reached one month old, the children with autism were 35% more likely to be slow feeders, and by their first birthday, their diets were more limited and consisted of fewer fruits and vegetables.
It should be noted here that it is important to rule out any other potential problems before jumping to the conclusion that your child is on the autism spectrum. Picky eaters might be picky because they have intestinal discomfort from allergies or gastrointestinal issues. Perhaps your picky eater doesn’t have the oral skills to chew and break food down properly, and it’s simply too much work. Or, maybe your child just doesn’t like the taste or texture of the food that he/she is being offered.
The most important thing is to rule out any potential medical problems that could be causing your child to reject food. Watch carefully for problems with swallowing, pain, vomiting, diarrhea, allergic responses, or failure to thrive. If you notice any of these symptoms, it is important to see your pediatrician right away.
Why do Children on the Autism Spectrum Have so Many Food Aversions?
Children on the autism spectrum tend to have so many food aversions because of sensory issues. Texture, color, and smell can cause a child on the autism spectrum to turn away from many foods. It would not be unusual for a child to prefer a certain color or texture like yogurt and remain limited to that particular texture for an extended period of time.
Habits and routines such as eating the same thing in the same place at the same time can also affect a child on the autism spectrum. For some children, it can be traumatic to change the expected routine.
Additionally, children on the spectrum tend to gravitate to highly processed carbohydrates. Foods like crackers, pizza, chips, cookies, and other items that are easy to eat take precedence over healthier options like fresh fruit or vegetables with lunch or dinner.
All of these variables can present a challenge for parents, but none of them are impossible to overcome. With persistence and a little creativity, it is possible to expand the variety of foods that your child with autism eats.
What to do when a Child With Autism Refuses Most Foods?
Once any medical problems have been ruled out, there are some strategies for dealing with a picky eater who is on the autism spectrum.
Be Patient and Persistent
Whether your child is on the autism spectrum or not, most children need to be exposed to a new food several times before they actually decide to try it. Some pediatricians say that it takes at least a dozen exposures, others may tell you it can take 30 or even more times to finally coax a child into trying something new. Be patient – if it takes 1 piece of broccoli 100 times at dinner, that’s okay. Just keep trying.
Try Different Textures
Raw broccoli and steamed broccoli have very different textures. Blended yogurt and yogurt with fruit chunks on the bottom of the container are very different as well. If your child isn’t getting enough vegetables, try blending them into a pasta sauce so that they are undetectable but the nutrients are still available.
Limiting snacks helps ensure that your child is hungry and more willing to try something new. If you give in to every request for a cookie, crackers, or even juice, your child could be filling up on empty calories without leaving any room for the more nutrient-dense choices. Some parents have difficulty saying no for fear of a meltdown but work on giving your child less, and try to distract him/her with activities during times when he/she would normally fish around for snacks.
Provide Options For Your Child
Sometimes children on the autism spectrum want to feel like they have some measure of control over what they choose to eat. Just make sure that the choices are healthy and that they encourage trying something new.
Let Them Help
Bring your child into the kitchen and let him/her help prepare lunch or dinner. Encourage your child to touch, smell, and taste foods as you prepare them. Model tasting some of the ingredients as you prepare the food. If your child is more connected to the foods that you serve, it might just remove some of the fear or mystery that your child has created about certain foods.
Don’t Force Them Or Get Angry
Don’t force feed or get angry with your child if he/she doesn’t respond the way that you would hope for him/her to respond. If you go through the trouble of preparing something, and you are convinced that it will surely encourage him/her to eat it- and he/she doesn’t- don’t respond negatively. Put your poker face on and take it away. Eat a couple of bites and make positive statements like “oooh…that’s really good” or “I love this stuff, I’ll eat it. Maybe next time you’ll want to try it.”
Be flexible and realize that it may take some time to get a child with autism to latch on to the idea of trying new food items. Even typically developing children take time to try new foods. Think about how long it takes some children to enjoy onions, spinach, bell pepper, and other foods that adults seem to enjoy that perhaps they wouldn’t dream of touching when they were children. The same is true for children on the spectrum. Sometimes they just need to mature before they decide that they want to give a new food a chance.
Are Certain Foods Good or Bad for Autism?
One thing that is certain about the topic of diet and autism is that there is an infinite amount of information out there. In fact, there is so much information on this topic that it can leave you more confused than you were when you started to research for information.
There is a bottom line to this. Autism is a developmental disorder that affects the brain, and when it comes to dietary concerns and what is good and bad for a child with autism, these concerns are no different than the dietary concerns for any other child- or adult for that matter.
Foods To Avoid For Children With Autism
While there are other foods that might be specific to each child, processed foods and high-sugar foods are generally considered the worst for children with autism. Beyond these two culprits, any other foods that you might need to limit would be based on allergies or cultural preferences.
Processed foods are not ideal for anyone. For a child with autism, they can be problematic because they are tasty and habit-forming, and they can interfere with eating more healthy foods because they are satiated on the yummy snacks with little to no nutritional value.
High-sugar foods are also not ideal for anyone. High-sugar foods might taste good and feel good at the moment when they are consumed, but excess sugar converts to fat. According to the CDC, childhood obesity rates for children between the ages of 2-19 in 2017-2018 were as follows: 13.4% among 2 to 5-year-olds, 20.3% among 6 to 11-year-olds, and 21.2% among 12 to 19-year-olds. Sugary foods should be limited for everyone and especially for children with autism who tend to form habits and routines that are hard to break.
Foods That Are Great For Children With Autism
The focus should be on what essential nutrients your child is getting. Instead of trying elimination diets, try preparing meal plans and snacks that satisfy as many nutritional requirements as possible. Elimination of diets to experiment with behavioral effects can lead to deficiencies. For example, eliminating dairy can cause calcium and vitamin D deficiencies in children who aren’t getting enough of these elements from dairy, fish, dark greens, eggs, and other calcium-rich foods. Two of these essential nutrients for any child, but especially a child with autism, are essential fatty acids and probiotics.
Essential Fatty Acids
Essential Fatty Acids (EFAs) like Omega 3 and Omega 6s can only come from the diet. These are essential to brain development and immune responses. Fish, meat, eggs, and oils are your sources of these essential fats.
Probiotics are also helpful for everyone in general but may be particularly helpful for children with autism who may have digestive issues, swelling, or inflammation. Swelling and inflammation are common in children with autism, so probiotics should be consumed in foods like yogurt or taken as supplements.
Again, these nutritional and dietary concerns are the very same that all of us should be concerned with. The tougher task for a family who has a child with autism is in creating a way of eating that doesn’t require added time or expense to the needs of the entire family- and it shouldn’t. An optimal diet for a child with autism is an optimal diet for the entire family. The better your child eats, the healthier, happier, and more content your child will be. There is no mystery here. Processed, sugary foods and problematic foods that cause allergies will cause moodiness and discomfort. Healthy foods will contribute to healthy bodies and happy minds.
If you are experiencing a child who is reluctant to eat certain foods, or even refusing food, there’s no need to jump to the autism diagnosis. Though there is some connection between the two, food aversion is also a very common thing for young children to experience. However, if you know of your child’s diagnosis and are seeking help, or would like more resources and information, Circle Care is here to help. We aim to provide services that make life easier for every family with autistic children. We offer ABA therapy, daycare, and in-home services for autistic children in the New Jersey area. If you’re interested, contact us today to learn more about what we offer.