Image of a girl holding an apple


How To Manage Food Refusal in Children With Autism

May 11, 2022

By ABA Psychological Services

Autism and food problems tend to go hand in hand, but there are strategies to improve different eating patterns and help your child enjoy a wide range of foods.

Autism and Food Refusal - Common Causes
First, let’s start by understanding why children on the spectrum are extremely particular when it comes to their food choices. Some common reasons for this type of behavior include:
• Sensory sensitivity
The appearance, the taste and the smell of food can make it more, or less appealing to children with autism. Since they have a different way of processing everyday sensory information, certain food items can cause either over or under stimulation. Foods can also have an impact on other sensory systems such as interoception (awareness of internal state), proprioception (body awareness), and vestibular (balance). This is why most children with autism will pick one food texture, either soft or hard /crunchy, and be hesitant to try anything else.

• Cognitive factors
Countless studies have demonstrated that children on the spectrum have an increased need for safety. This, in turn, translates into a type of cognitive rigidity that often makes them prone to seek routines and rituals, including around food.

Some might only eat with the same utensils or feel the need to sit in the same spot. Conversely, they might decline food if their packaging has changed.

This storing desire for ‘sameness’ makes children gravitate towards “beige” carbohydrates (e.g. bread, pasta or chips) and creamy yogurts. However, their cognitive processes can make them less willing to try colorful foods with different shapes and textures such as meat, fruit and vegetables.

In addition, some children may only eat in certain environments. For example, at home, a child may have a few issues surrounding eating, however, when they are at school, they refuse to eat their lunch; even if sent from home with their favorite foods included.

• Other factors
Food neophobia (fear of the new) makes children with autism apprehensive to try foods before someone else does; they might also experience anxiety or disgust when introduced to new foods.

Turning Mealtime into A Positive Experience
There are several effective ways to manage food aversion caused by Autism. These next strategies are meant to help caregivers ensure a child with autism has all the nutrients they need to thrive:
1. Cater to their need for structure and routine. This means eating at the same number of meals at the same time every day and not offering food outside those eating windows.

2. Keep making unfavored foods available. Gradually expose your child to new foods. Serve small amounts of new foods (one apple, half a glass of milk, etc.) and place it on a separate plate, so children won’t feel as if the entire meal was “contaminated.”
When it comes to introducing “unfavored foods,” aim for small wins such as getting them comfortable with just looking at that food item. Offer plenty of support and praise. Eventually, you’ll build up their tolerance to a point where they can touch it, smell it, play with it and, finally, eat it.

3. Encourage play and curiosity. Playing with food goes hand in hand with the concept of gradual exposure. Show your child there’s nothing to fear by encouraging them to interact with food and explore it with all senses. Roll an orange across the table and observe how it moves or use cookie cutters to make fun shapes out of cheese. Talk about what these foods look, smell and feel like in their mouth and try to make associations with “safe” foods to help increase familiarity and comfort.

4. Help your child relax before mealtime. Once eating becomes associated with an unpleasant experience, children might start to become anxious before the meal is even assembled. Break this pattern by spending a couple minutes doing a relaxing activity with your child before each meal. Deep breathing is very effective at grounding children and so are tactile exercises like having them push their palms against yours or the wall.

5. Make it a family ritual. All children learn by taking cues from their environment and those with autism are no different. They are more likely to imitate you and try new foods, but make sure they know it’s ok to just sit with the whole family if they’re not comfortable eating just yet.

Start Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) Therapy

One-on-one ABA therapy with behavior analysts and ABA paraprofessionals can help children with autism overcome their food challenges and restore their nutritional balance.

At ABA Psychological Services, we develop customized treatment plans and offer convenient in-home care at the highest standards.

Learn more about what we do and schedule an appointment today!

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