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How To Feed An Autistic Child

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Fussy Eating Habits: Why They Happen In Autistic Children And Teenagers

Feeding an Autistic Child: How Nutrition Can Affect Kids with Autism

Some autistic children and teenagers have fussy eating or selective eating habits. This means children eat only a limited range of food.

If your child has fussy eatings habits, its good to understand why. This can help you manage your childs eating behaviour.

Some autistic childrens fussy eating habits are caused by gastrointestinal problems. So its always best to speak with your childs GP or paediatrician if your child has gastrointestinal symptoms, like slow weight gain or growth, diarrhoea or tummy pain.

If tummy problems arent the cause, the selective eating might be because your child:

  • has sensory sensitivities and prefers food with particular textures
  • likes routines and wants the same food at the same time every day
  • is more focused on how food looks than how it tastes and wants the food presented in the same way every day
  • finds it hard to try new experiences, including eating new food
  • has become preoccupied with a particular type of food.

How Can Probiotics Help Gi Symptoms

Probiotics contain healthy bacteria and can improve the microflora in the GI tract. Kids with autism tend to have abnormal GI flora, and when they routinely ingest probiotics, their stools can improve. I suggest a probiotic with 1.5 to 4 billion bacterial colonies, depending on the age of the child. These are available in the grocery store.

Restricts Entire Food Groups

Take notice of what your child eats over the course of a day or two. Are they consuming fruits, vegetables, dairy, protein, and grains? Barring food intolerances or allergies, a balanced diet ideally includes foods from all food groups, yet many super picky eaters eat from only two or three food groups. Vegetables are tend to be the least preferred. They are often the trickiest to manage from a sensory perspective and some kids dislike their bright colors and potentially bitter taste. Protein foods are also notoriously challenging for kids who struggle to eat.

Restricting an entire food group is a trait that can distinguish extreme picky eaters from typical picky eaters.

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Reasons Behind Picky Eating

Children with autism should work with a behavior therapist as early as possible. This will help them adjust symptoms of autism that become maladaptive behaviors, like socially isolating, developing repetitive or ritualistic behaviors, or rejecting all but a few foods.

There may be gastrointestinal issues associated with some food rejection. People with autism often struggle with digestive discomfort, constipation, diarrhea, and related issues. If a child feels that a specific food triggers that pain, they may refuse it, become suspicious of mealtimes in general, or throw tantrums around food.

Finally, motor issues may be a cause of food rejection. Children with autism often have less muscle tone and motor coordination than their peers. This might manifest in rejecting tougher, crunchier, or fibrous food that requires more chewing in favor of softer foods with uniform textures.

Occupational Therapy For Food Sensory Issues


There are some ways to help your child improve their processing of sensory information. However, not all can be done at home by yourself.

A therapist trained in this area can use specialized techniques appropriate to your childs needs.

One of the options is occupational therapy . Occupational therapists specialized in feeding and sensory processing can assess what the underlying concerns are and intervene in sensory ones.

Occupational therapists will analyze your childs diet in a detailed manner. They will determine appropriate foods.

Through the professional practices, your child will be able to warm-up their system with sensory-based activities.

If your child is showing oral defensiveness, they will also provide oral motor massage to alert your childs mouth to get it ready for feeding.

Through occupational therapy, your child will be presented with opportunities to develop positive oral experiences instead of negative ones.

They will be making use of toys and feeding utensils with different shapes and textures.

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How These Behaviors Escalate

Often parents who have children with autism are focused on a number of different needs at the same time and many of those speech issues, toileting, school placement, overall compliance take precedence over the variety of foods a child is accepting. Feeding issues get back-burnered until either they become untenable or parents are able to focus on them.

If the child eats 10 foods and those 10 foods are keeping them alive and safe and fine, then parents will default to those foods, says Dr. Lee. But ignoring these issues tends to make them tougher to solve. The longer these negative mealtime behaviors go on, the more ingrained they become and the longer they take to treat successfully. That doesnt mean parents should give up, just that the process is probably going to take longer and require more persistence and patience on everyones part.

What Other Nutritional Advice Do You Give To Your Patients

A healthy diet is essential for all kids, but even more so with kids with ASDs because there is concern their GI issues may lead to poor absorption of key nutrients for growth and development. One of our primary goals is to get kids eating a nutritionally complete diet and to reestablish a healthy GI system.

I recommend a healthy, natural, varied diet as close to the earth a possible. Avoiding pesticides, preservatives, artificial ingredients, fast foods, monosodium glutamate, or processed foods is ideal, but not always practical. Diets that are less processed and more natural, like an organic diet, are easier to digest and absorb because they contain fewer toxins that need to be eliminated.

Many of the kids with ASDs tend to be deficient in essential fatty acids, fiber, and protein. We turn to registered dietitians to evaluate diets and help parents understand where the nutrient gaps are and how to fill them.

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Some Variations/adaptations For Individual Differences

  • Sometimes it is best to allow a child to have his/her own utensil and plate. This can make the rules of food-sharing more clear if needed, as well as to allow easier sizing of portions).
  • Have your child engage in oral sensory play approximately 15 minutes before meals. This may help to warm up or sensitize the mouth region.
  • Picky food ideas for autism: Choose foods that have graded textures and that are close to the textures of the foods already enjoyed by your child with autism and food refusal will likely decrease the closer a new food is to an already loved one.

Autism And Eating: 8 Tips To Help A Picky Eater With Autism

Autism and Food- Autistic Toddler Feeding Routine

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Autism and eating is a hot topic among parents with a child on the autism spectrum.

And with good reason.

While fussy eating is common among many children, having a picky eater with autism can be much more extreme. Some kids with ASD have gastrointestinal issues they cant verbalize, others have strong food texture issues, some have sensory eating issues regarding certain tastes and smells, and still others have rituals around food that make it impossible for them to eat anything thats not a certain color, brand, food group, etc.

Whatever the reason for your childs picky eating, it can be extremely frustrating and challenging, not to mention worrying, but Im here to tell you theres hope.

There are things you can do to help a picky eater with autism.

Will these strategies work overnight?

Probably not.

But Im a big believer in the idea that good things come to those who work hard and persevere, and feel the long-term success far outweighs the short-term pains when it comes to figuring out the autism and eating puzzle as it relates to your individual child.

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The Optimal Food List For Children With Autism

A study found that the most common nutrient insufficiencies in children with autism were fiber, folic acid, calcium, iron, zinc, and vitamins A, C, D, E, K, B6, and B12. Due to food preferences or obsessions, some children may have too much of one or two of these nutrients. Food avoidances mean that many autistic children dont have enough of these vitamins and minerals. To help your child get the right balance of these important nutrients, try adding these foods to their diet with the help of their treatment team:

  • Beans like navy beans, pinto beans, and black beans
  • Peanuts and peanut butter
  • Cruciferous vegetables like kale and broccoli
  • Spinach
  • Dark chocolate, as an occasional sweet treat
  • Lean beef, turkey, and chicken
  • Chickpeas
  • Citrus like oranges and grapefruit
  • Mushrooms
  • Rice
  • Onions and garlic

Many of these foods offer multiple nutrients, so combining them in different ways through meal planning can help your child get high-quality nutrients, avoid foods that cause discomfort, and slowly add new experiences to your childs eating habits.

Begin planning meals that contain several fruits, vegetables, grains, and proteins, so there is a variety of options. Sprinkle in new foods with tried-and-true options you know your child will like.

Food Sensory Issues In Babies

Food sensory issues cause challenges in babies, too. The symptoms are similar to a child who seems like a picky eater.

However, sensory issues cause physical impact for the baby. It is not just a matter of preference. They feel sensory overload due to the properties of a food.

Food sensory issues can cause a baby to:

  • Refuse trying new foods
  • Eat only a few favorite foods
  • Avoid certain foods due to texture, temperature, color, smell
  • Be fussy during feeding time

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Picky Eaters With Autism Are Common But The Reasons Are Unclear

No one really knows why so many children with autism are picky eaters, says Kimberly Kroeger-Geoppinger, an assistant pediatrics professor at the Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center. But there’s no doubt that it’s a common phenomenon. That means that parents’ permissiveness is probably not the cause.

Kroeger says there are several possible reasons for autistic children’s pickiness. “We know that children with autism tend to select down, eliminating one food from their diet at a time. The reasons could be sensory , or even a randomly developed routine.”

How To Help Your Child With Autism Overcome Picky Eating


By David Sponder, MSE

May 26, 2021

Picky Eating is the common term for what Picky Eaters do. These children are hard to please and to feed in general, but they rarely end up starving themselves. Patterns of over-selecting food are common among children with developmental disorders, but they are also common among all children.

Estimates vary widely among studies, but in a recent report, the estimate was about one-fifth of all children. There are several possible causes of food selectivity in autism.

Behavioral problems that affect feeding and eating in autism and other developmental complications include sensory textures and flavors of food, or they have had trouble chewing or swallowing and unpleasant experiences with food. Therefore, they tend to be less flexible in general, and especially less flexible than most when it comes to food.

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Top 5 Methods To Help Your Autistic Child Overcome Picky Eating

Here are some ways you can help your child if they struggle with specific issues:

  • Offer small tastes. Keep track of the foods your child likes, and slowly introduce very small tastes of other foods alongside what they already like. For example, if they like chicken nuggets, you can introduce crumb-sized pieces of broccoli, so they get used to the presence, appearance, feel, taste, and texture of the food. They may not eat it the first day, but as you continue to introduce very small amounts of this food on their plate, they will get used to it and start eating it. As they get used to eating small bites of broccoli, you can add larger pieces. You may want to start by adding foods that are similar textures and/or flavors to what your child already likes.
  • Try stimulus fading. This works well with offering small tastes. For eating issues, stimulus fading is the process of gradually increasing the size of foods that are presented. This is specific to foods that your child may have rejected in the past or that have textures, smells, and flavors that are very different from what your child currently prefers. When your child has accepted three consecutive bites of this food within 30 seconds, without gagging or screaming, you can increase the size of the bites of that food at the next meal.
  • When To Take Steps That Can Improve Your Childs Eating Habitsand How To Succeed

    Feeding concerns are common for children with autism. In fact, children with autism are five times more likely than their peers to develop a feeding problem. However, it can be difficult to tell whether a childs eating habits are normal or require intervention.

    Read on to learn more about feeding issues associated with autism and what steps you need to take to ensure that your child is getting appropriate nutrition and help with eating.

    Identifying a feeding problem

    Mealtime problems are common in young children and can include:

    • Fluctuating hunger
    • Unwillingness to try new foods
    • Strong food preferences

    Even though picky eating is a common problem, research suggests that its usually a temporary and normal part of development. However, children with autism often have more chronic feeding problems that go beyond picky eating. This may mean the child wont eat an entire category of food such as proteins or vegetables. Or it may mean that a child exhibits intense problem behaviors when offered foods they dont like.

    Types of feeding problems associated with autism

    Impact on family life

    Risks associated with food selectivity

    • Poor bone growth
    • Constipation
    • Vitamin and mineral deficiencies

    Research indicates that children with autism tend to have a lower intake of calcium and protein in their diets, which can result in preventable diet-related diseases.

    Tips for expanding your childs diet

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    Mealtime Tips For Autistic Children With Eating Challenges

    An Autism Speaks Autism Treatment Network therapist shares her strategies for improving nutrition and mealtime behavior

    This weeks Food for Thought post is by occupational therapist Moira Pena, of Torontos Holland Bloorview Kids Rehabilitation Hospital. The hospital is one of 14 centers in the Autism Speaks Autism Treatment Network .

    Editors note: The following information is not meant to diagnose or treat and should not take the place of personal consultation, as appropriate, with a qualified healthcare professional and/or behavioral therapist.

    Feeding challenges are among the most common issues that bring children with autism and their parents to my practice.

    Of course, childrens nutrition and mealtime behavior are common issues for parents everywhere. But research confirms what our ATN parents have long been telling us: Children with autism are far more likely to be overly selective in what they will and will not eat. As a result, many of them have less nutritional variety in their diets than their typically developing siblings and friends. Fear of new foods and outright food refusal are among the most common concerns I hear from parents.

    This is why the Autism Speaks ATN, in its role as the federally funded Autism Research Network on Physical Health, developed Exploring Feeding Behavior in Autism: a guide for parents.

    Why Are Children Picky Eaters

    Feeding my autistic child

    When you are identifying strategies to deal with extreme food selectivity in autism, it is important first to identify the causes of food selectivity in autism. Picky eating is a useful survival strategy that kept us alive since we were all hunter-gatherers. For many thousands of years, we traveled in small tribes from one new place to another. If we ate every plant along the waywe wouldnt be here. Children that were too adventurous would poison themselves on any of those many plants that were trying to kill us. Their genes never made it this far.

    Just as important is the parent, especially the mother. The mother that could be nonchalant about her child not eating probably didnt have many offspring that made it either. The genes of mothers unmoved by their childs refusal to eat tend not to survive generations. Most mothers report that they are anxious about their childrens picky eating habits. Indeed, changes in mothers brains following bonding with their children make them acutely sensitive to signs that a child is not eating. As a result, mothers can experience feelings that fathers and other people may not understand, but that matters a lot if a change plan is to work.

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    Use Supplements Designed For Autistic Children

    Often when the diet is poor, children with autism can end up with a deficit of essential vitamins and nutrients. Its can be a challenge to get children to take supplements but there are special natural supplements out there that are optimised for children on the autism spectrum. There is also a link between gut health and brain function and many parents have seen improvements after the use of probiotics and friendly bacteria.

    Working On Fussy Eating In Autistic Children: Why Its Important

    Your child needs a variety of fresh, healthy foods for good health and development, so its important to work on fussy eating. Also, your childs fussy eating is unlikely to go away or change by itself, so ignoring the behaviour probably wont work.

    But forcing your child to eat a new food can make things worse, because your child might refuse to eat altogether. So its almost always best to use strategies that encourage a varied diet and help your child gradually get comfortable with new foods.

    Your child needs a wide variety of fresh foods from the five healthy food groups vegetables, fruit, grain foods, dairy or dairy-free alternatives and protein. You can find out more in our articles on healthy food for preschoolers, healthy food for school-age children and healthy food for teenagers.

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