How to help my picky eater autistic child?

A child being a picky eater – especially when they are young – is not a new or strange concept. Many children go through phases of not tolerating certain kinds of food. As children grow older they usually grow out of their picky eating habits but that’s not the case for all.

For autistic children, being a picky eater can be more than just a phase. Around 89% of autistic children have sensory aversions to certain food. This means that the texture, smell, taste, temperature or even colour of the food can cause sensory difficulties that cause the child to refuse to eat.

As a parent of an autistic child, it can be difficult to deal with food sensory difficulties especially if your child is having health issues due to their limited diet. However, there are multiple techniques you can use to help your child widen the variety of food on their plate and be more open to trying new things.

What not to do

Some techniques might have more of a negative effect on your child than a positive one. So here are some examples of what to avoid doing:

  • Do not force-feed your child. Forcing your child to eat something they don’t want can increase their resistance and even if it works for a while, they probably won’t stick with it.
  • Do not trick your child. Hiding food they don’t like in ones they do might work for a while but if they discover it, it might make them suspicious of all food.
  • Do not compare your child to others. Every child, even autistic ones, has their own journey with food. Focus on your child’s needs and what works for them without pressuring them to imitate others.

What to do

There are many techniques that can help your child become more open to trying new food. It’s important to remember that not every single technique below will work with every child. You need to be patient and try different ones until you find the ones that work for you and them.

  • Rule out medical problems. Your autistic child might be avoiding a certain food because it makes their stomach hurt or makes them feel itchy for example and they don’t know how to describe that. A medical check-up can help you figure this one out.
  • Introduce one new item at a time. Try to avoid bombarding your child with many items they usually avoid. Along with their favourite food, add one new item in a small portion. Encourage them to try it once and then they can eat what they like.
  • Rely on repetition. Even if they don’t agree to try the new item the first time, keep introducing it. The more they get used to seeing it, smelling it, and watching others enjoy it, they might feel curious to try it themselves eventually.
  • Lean into textures they like. If you want to introduce more vegetables to a child who likes crunchy food, go with carrots or celery. If your child prefers softer creamier textures, then try mashed potatoes or courgette.
  • Play with food. Turning food items into playing tools can encourage your child to touch them, smell them and get used to how they look without the pressure of meal time. You can colour with sauce or make characters with veggie pieces. Get creative.
  • Don’t push it too far. For every meal, have one goal in mind. If the goal is for them to taste something new then don’t push it into having multiple bites. If the goal is to finish one piece, they don’t need to clear their plate.
  • Praise. Praise. Praise. Make sure you set a positive and encouraging mood throughout the whole process. Whenever they achieve one goal, however small, make sure to praise them. Introduce awards for bigger goals like them adding a new item to their plate.

Having a child refuse to eat a lot of different foods can be stressful and worrying for parents. Especially if they believe it may cause health issues in the future. It’s important to be patient, supportive and encouraging to help your child overcome their issues with food. Always meet your child where they are, take it slow but steady and you will eventually find your rhythm.

References and further reading:

Child Mind Institute

National Autistic Society

Beyond Autism

Learn more about supporting your autistic child:

Top Tips to help autistic children by autistic children
How a family can support their autistic child

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