Feeding/Eating Problems in Children with Autism

Comorbidity in Autism & Disordered Eating

Feeding, believe it or not, is a complex human behavior. It is influenced by an individual’s developmental stage, medical conditions, maturation, and oral-motor abilities. Sensory factors such as taste, smell, and texture also play a role, as well as our past experiences with food. When all of these aspects align harmoniously, feeding tends to proceed smoothly. However, if there are issues in any of these areas, it can impact feeding behavior. The process of feeding engages multiple sensory systems, including touch, sight, taste, smell, and sound. Many children diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) encounter challenges with sensory processing, which can make it difficult for them to consume certain foods. Additionally, behavioral problems can arise during mealtimes for children with autism. Certain children exhibit such extreme selectivity with their food choices that it can be categorized as an eating disorder.

Due to their challenges in communication, individuals with autism struggle to articulate the reasons behind their restricted food intake. As a result, they may appear stubborn rather than unwell to those on the outside.

Here are some suggestions that can assist in making feeding a bit easier. Keep in mind that every child is unique, so families may need to be creative in their approach using these tips. These strategies have shown effectiveness in addressing feeding problems in most cases. With the support and guidance of your child’s primary care physician (PCP) and your team, these actions may aid in the gradual improvement of feeding issues:

Smiling Grandmother at Family Dinner

Establish a Feeding Schedule & Routine

Encourage your child to eat at the same place and follow a consistent mealtime schedule and routine. By maintaining consistency in time, location, and routine, your child will develop expectations for mealtimes and understand what is expected during meals.

Break time is snack time

Avoid All-Day Eating

Discourage continuous snacking or providing food/drinks to your child throughout the day. This reduces appetite, willingness to try new foods, and overall calorie intake. Instead, designate five or six scheduled meals/snacks each day and limit consumption at other times. This guideline applies to other family members as well since children tend to mimic their family’s eating habits.

Break time is snack time
The child eats spaghetti lunch. Selective focus.

Provide Comfortable & Supportive Seating

Ensure that your child sits upright in a high chair, booster seat, or at a child-size table, avoiding leaning, swaying, or dangling feet. You can use a stool or stack of books for foot support. This physical stability promotes positive feeding behaviors by making your child feel secure and grounded.

Vegetables lying around alarm clock

Limit Mealtime Duration

Even selective eaters tend to consume most of their food within the initial 30 minutes. Restrict meal and snack times to 15-30 minutes. Once the allocated time is over, remove all food and allow your child to engage in other activities.

Hungry young woman eating junk food Fried Chicken and French Fries for dinner by ordering delivery

Minimize Distractions

Avoid distractions like television during mealtime as they divert attention from the food and the eating process. Feed your child only when they are alert and attentive, enhancing their focus on the task at hand.

autism thanksgiving food

Involve Your Child

Encourage your child to participate in selecting and preparing meals, even if they don't ultimately taste the final product. Involving them allows exploration and playfulness with different foods, without the pressure to eat them.

Family Eating Outdoor Meal In Garden At Home Together

Promote Pleasant & Healthy Eating Behaviors

Children learn by observation, especially during family mealtimes. Parents and siblings can demonstrate good eating habits, making mealtime enjoyable. Avoid excessive focus on your child’s eating, repetitive prompts, coaxing, or begging. By making healthy food choices for the entire family, you set an example for your child to follow.

Mothers and Son Giving High Five

Reward Positive Behaviors

 Recognize and praise your child when they approach or try new foods. Immediate rewards, such as blowing bubbles or stickers, can encourage new feeding behaviors. Remember, rewarding positive mealtime behaviors increases the likelihood of their recurrence.

Mothers and Son Giving High Five
Child face messy and dirty by chocolate ice cream

Ignore Negative Behaviors

Whenever possible, ignore negative behaviors like spitting, throwing, or refusing food. Paying attention to such behaviors might inadvertently reinforce them. In cases where these behaviors are severe, it may be necessary to seek guidance from a specialist for proper management.

School lunch bento box set

Remember the Rule of Three

Offer foods that your child already likes as well as those they are yet to develop a preference for. A helpful guideline is to present three different foods at a time—include one to two familiar foods and one new food. If your child is unwilling to have the new food on their plate, place it on a separate plate nearby to help them become accustomed to it.

School lunch bento box set
Homemade hummus with spices, pine nuts and rainbow veggie platter

Presentation Matters

Introduce new foods in small, bite-sized portions and present them in fun or familiar ways. This can increase the likelihood of your child trying and accepting the food.

Consult a Professional

By implementing these tips, you can create a more positive feeding experience for your child. Remember, every child is unique, so feel free to adapt these suggestions to best suit your family’s needs and consult professionals if necessary.

Guide Disclaimer

The information provided in this article is intended for general informational purposes only and should not be considered as professional advice or a substitute for medical, therapeutic, or educational guidance. Every child with autism and disordered eating behavior is unique, and what works for one child may not work for another. It is essential to consult with qualified professionals, such as doctors, psychologists, therapists, or educators, who can provide individualized recommendations and support tailored to your child’s specific needs.