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  • Writer's pictureCoach Patty, HealthSmart! Kids

7 Essential Tips to Manage Picky Eating Behavior in Autism

An angry boy with his hands in his hair sitting over a plate of food he doesn't want to eat

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Many parents and professionals are surprised to find that focusing on a healthier diet isn't always part of the usual treatment for autism, even though it can have incredible benefits. Autism and picky eating very often go hand in hand.

Improving eating habits for kids really is an important piece of the autism puzzle!

When we address picky eating habits and eating behaviors for our kids with autism, it can greatly improve their responses to other interventions, making treatment outcomes better overall.

Many kids with autism have huge issues with self-limiting to certain foods, sensory issues with food tastes and textures, communication difficulties and/or digestive concerns.

Add to the mix that kids are uniquely different with their individual temperaments that can seriously impact their approaches to eating.

Each of these factors can make it pretty complicated to foster healthy eating habits for our kids!

Still, making efforts to encourage healthier eating habits is definitely worth it.

Better eating puts all kids at a better place to think, learn and behave to the best of their abilities. When it comes to our kids who have learning and/or behavior challenges, whatever we can do to support a healthy body and brain will only make things easier and better for them in the long run.

A young girl doing her school work

Here are 7 helpful tips to support healthier eating behavior for kids with autism:

1. Recognize Eating as a Behavior

Whether your child was finicky from the get-go or became pickier around preschool age (very common!), at the end of the day, they now have developed a behavioral response to regular feeding routines.

As parents, it's our job to manage eating behaviors as we do other behaviors, keeping the emphasis on encouraging healthy eating while avoiding power struggles with our kids.

2. Adjust for Communication Barriers

Many kids with autism are non-verbal or have speech and language delays. When our kids can't easily have their wants known, they communicate using their behavior. For kids with autism, communication barriers can lead to increased frustration, tantrums, and severe acting out.

Like in other situations, these behaviors also show up with feeding when parents try to change expectations. Plan for this behavior and use tools like picture icons and communication boards to help support your child through these feeding changes.

picture of a First-Then token board with PECS

Use visual tools like this printable First-Then Token Board with PECS to help kids with autism navigate daily schedules, including feeding routines.

3. Address Sensory Issues for Picky Eating and Autism

Many kids with autism have sensory issues, which can have a huge impact on feeding. Eating is a complex behavioral task and a complex sensory task. Eating requires the use of all our senses. Some kids experience sensory overload when it comes to feeding. Sensory sensitive kids can get easily overwhelmed by how the food looks and smells, or by the texture, temperature, and taste of the food.

If your child struggles with sensory issues, think about having them checked by an occupational therapist or another expert who can provide extra help and support.

A mother and her young son each taking a bite of chicken

4. Structure Settings for Success

Just like other important parts of the daily routine, structure settings for success with eating. Plan ahead by keeping regular meal and snack times and define mealtime table rules at home.

Try to structure your pantry and refrigerator so that you only have healthy snacks and meals available for the kids to choose from. Generally, parents decide what to serve…kids decide what and how much they will eat.

5. Identify Hidden Food Allergies or Intolerances

Sometimes kids have food sensitivities that don't show up on standard allergy tests, but still cause problems when it comes to them self- limiting with foods. Kids will either refrain from (or in many cases gravitate toward) certain foods that are problematic for them. This can lead to a further limited diet and increased picky eating.

Talk with your child's doctor if you suspect they may have unidentified food sensitivities. Your child's doctor can also help figure out if there are any nutritional deficiencies that could also be contributing to eating problems.

6. Get Creative

To get our kids to eat healthier, we have to change their relationship with food. Make food fun!

Teach kids to change how they think about food, getting them involved as your 'Kid in the Kitchen' to help stir, pour, etc. in preparing foods.

Kids are more likely to taste something new if they helped prepare it, even in small ways.

Presentation is so important to kids. Try to find simple ways to make food fun and interesting.

These fun feeding plates from Fred & Friends have the visual appeal to make things a bit more interesting for your picky eater.

7. Keep Trying

Most importantly, keep working to transform your picky eater! Most kids need to see a new food several times before they'll try it and decide if they like it. Stay the course so that your picky eater gets familiar with the 'new' eating routine structure, while you also rule out or address sensory issues and/or food sensitivities.

The habits you help form will likely be with your child for life. And the changes you are likely to see when it comes to supporting good learning and behavior with feeding changes can empower you to continue with your feeding goals for your family.

A teacher and student with special needs sitting down face to face and her holding his hands

a picture of the Build A Better Eater book by Patty Canton

Get my short guidebook Build A Better Eater, your go-to resource to start transforming your picky eater now!

Want more resources to help you navigate the complex world of autism for those you love and care for? Check out for excellent insight and useful information from others living with autism.

All blog content shared through HealthSmart! Kids is for informational purposes only and not to be construed as medical advice. Always talk with your qualified health care provider for managing your health care needs.


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