Every night at dinner, many parents promise delicious ice cream if only their children eat the vegetables on their plates. For parents who have children with autism, the mealtime battles can feel much more difficult. It’s extremely common for children with autism to have food aversions and sensitivities. In fact, researchers at Marcus Autism Center at Emory University School of Medicine found children with autism had a 5 times more likely chance of mealtime challenges, including tantrums or ritualistic behaviors. Other research has shown that up to 70 percent of parents with autistic children say they experience very picky eating habits.
What’s most common to experience is food selectivity; where children are very picky with foods and choose to eat a small number of foods. Any type of feeding difficulty can make meals a challenge and increase conflicts between parents and children. It’s important that families use strategies that help promote positive feelings around eating with approaches that allow the child to feel in control and comfortable.
Sometimes the challenges kids demonstrate in their food choices could be due to underlying anxiety, stress, and sensory issues. Specifically, certain foods like tomatoes, have specific sensory challenges because they are slippery, and change shape and texture when you bite into them. By serving these in other forms, children can avoid that texture discomfort.
Another consideration is that some children simply cannot sit still long enough for a meal, so they aren’t able to eat enough food for nutrition purposes. Finding more flexible meal settings that allow for movement and breaks can make your child feel more comfortable. If your child is on a stimulant medication used for autism, they have been shown to decrease appetite. If you notice your child’s food intake decreasing after beginning these types of medications, talk to your pediatrician.
To make mealtime calmer and help your child expand their palate, here are some tips to try:
- Explore food together. Encourage your child to look and touch the food before trying to eat it.
- Mix a food with something they already like. As an example, if they like yogurt, puree strawberries and add it in.
- Encourage your child to play with their food and make mealtime fun. For pizza night, let your child create a face with toppings or paint with pizza sauce.
- Bring your child to the store to choose new foods with you. Allow them to find a new fruit or vegetable to buy and make at home together for dinner.
- Make meals as predictable as possible with the same surroundings, times and people. Try dimming the lights if your child is sensitive to bright light.
- Provide Choices. When possible, allow your child to choose which foods are on their plate, what plate they use, where they sit, where you sit, etc. Incorporating choice into mealtimes can increase feelings of comfort and control potentially increasing your child’s willingness to eat!
ABA therapy at Acorn Health can help navigate feeding and mealtime with your child. To learn more, visit https://acornhealth.com.