Why Are Autistic Children Picky Eaters?

Mealtimes may be one of the hardest parts of a day for parents of children with autism. Picky eating is generally demonstrated by neurotypical and neurodivergent children. But when the latter continues to display such habits for a prolonged period, it needs to be addressed. Sometimes they may ignore the food that is put on the table or eat only one particular category of food. Other times, there may be tantrums, screaming and other forms of protest.

As parents, while the worry is natural, training ourselves to look for the unsaid message is crucial, more so when dealing with children. They often don’t know the right way to express a discomfort or are at a loss of words to do so.

Often, sensory sensitivities pose a challenge for children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). They also have difficulty processing sensory information. Their choice of food, be it preferences or aversions, stem from these sensory issues. At Autism Intervention Specialists in Dubai, we receive children who are picky eaters too. It is important to identify why children with autism may be picky eaters.

Firstly, what are the signs that a picky eater exhibits?

  • Preference for only certain foods
  • Random, fluctuating hunger patterns
  • Strong resistance to trying new foods

Parents’ concern revolves around weight loss in their children. With age, continued preference for processed snacks could lead to lifestyle illnesses like obesity and cardiovascular disease. There are other problems associated with picky eating as well, such as:

  • Constipation
  • Mineral and vitamin deficiencies
  • Reduced bone growth

From our experience, here are the most common reasons that children show poor eating habits:

Sensory sensitivity: Children with autism are generally wary of anything new. With food, it may feel safe for them to go with what is known if they have sensory sensitivities. Foods acceptable to them may be of a limited range and an inclination developed through habit. Introducing new food items then, might need some help. Heightened sensitivities can lead to sensory overwhelm for most children with autism, making foods with strong flavors or unusual textures unpalatable for them.

Gut issues: For children with autism, most of the time, a sensitive gut is all too real an issue that can be hard to express or even comprehend. They are drawn to the foods that they are familiar with and as a caution, stay away from new foods. Foods they are accustomed to are soothing by its sheer predictability of taste and texture. Experimenting with new foods may be a cause of anxiety.

At AIS, we offer a training program where children are gently assured and guided to include foods that are staple to their culture and provide health. Some of the steps parents can take are:

Consistent routine, repetition for meals: Eating at the same time every day brings in the much-needed assurance of routine that children with autism need. Introduce miniscule portions of the new food for your child. Try to keep it similar in cooking method to what he/she already likes. Don’t compel any tasting or issue threats. Rather when other family members demonstrate the behavior of being open to experimenting with new foods, a curiosity may naturally arise.

Have meals together, as a family
Let mealtime be about the joy of eating as a family, keeping conversations pleasant and joyful. Make sure that all eating is always done at the table so that it becomes a habit.

Say “No” to grazing
Fix mealtimes and snack times and implement it so that there is no eating or ‘grazing’ at random times. Snack time can be when your child eats something he/she likes. This will help enforce the other rules such as where everyone eats when resistance quickly escalates to tantrums.

Praise/reward for effort
Mention specifically what action (trying a new vegetable?) led you to praise or reward your child. ‘Labelled praise’ helps children identify behaviors that are acceptable gradually taking their focus away from actions that are undesirable.

Some children have a severe eating disorder requiring specialized expert intervention, like that of a nutritionist or feeding therapy specialist rather than a behavior therapist.

About Author
WhatsApp Image 2023-07-15 at 13.26.14
Bahij Khouzami

M.Ed., BCBA, IBA | Founder

Bahij Khouzami is an expert in Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) specializing in Autism. As a Board Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA) and an International Behavior Analyst (IBA), Bahij is also a Professional Advisory Board Member of IBAO.
With a Master’s degree in Applied Behavior Analysis, specializing in Autism from Cambridge College in Massachusetts, USA, Bahij has provided ABA services for schools, homes and clinics across Massachusetts, USA.
Highly skilled, Bahij has worked with multidisciplinary teams in clinical, home, nursery and school settings during his career in the United States and now in Dubai.
A passionate teacher, Bahij trains therapists, educators and parents. Through AIS, Bahij remains committed to making a positive impact in the lives of individuals with Autism.

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