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From Fussy to Foodie: How to Overcome Picky Eating Habits in Kids with Autism

Updated: Sep 8, 2023

A little girl turning her head to refuse a piece of broccoli on a fork

As a parent of a child with autism, you may be all too familiar with the challenges of picky eating habits. Your child may refuse to eat certain foods, have difficulty trying new foods, or even limit their diet to only a few select items. While these habits can be frustrating and concerning, it's important to understand that picky eating is common among children with autism.

In fact, studies have shown that up to 70% of children with autism have some form of feeding difficulty. However, with the right strategies and support, it's possible to help your child overcome their picky eating habits and become a foodie.

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Understanding the Reasons Behind Picky Eating in Children with Autism

There are several reasons why children with autism may exhibit picky eating habits. One common reason is sensory processing issues. Kids with autism may be hypersensitive or hyposensitive to certain tastes, textures, smells, or visual cues, making it difficult for them to tolerate certain foods. For example, they may be averse to the texture of certain foods or the smell of strong spices. They may also have difficulty with the visual presentation of food, such as the way it's arranged on the plate or the color of certain foods.

Another reason for picky eating in kids with autism is related to their need for routine and predictability. Children with autism often thrive on routine and predictability, and any changes to their routine or environment can be overwhelming. This can lead to a reluctance to try new foods or eat foods that are unfamiliar to them.

Finally, anxiety and stress can also contribute to picky eating habits in children with autism. Kids with autism may have difficulty with communication and social interaction, which can lead to feelings of anxiety or stress at mealtime. They may also have difficulty expressing their preferences or dislikes, leading to a tendency to avoid certain foods altogether.

Consequences of Picky Eating in Children with Autism

While picky eating habits in children with autism may seem harmless, they can have serious consequences if left unaddressed. Limited food intake can lead to nutritional deficiencies, which can impact overall health and development.

Kids with autism who have picky eating habits may also miss out on important social and cultural experiences, such as trying new foods with family and friends or participating in holiday traditions.

Picky eating habits can also impact family dynamics and lead to stress and frustration for parents and caregivers. Mealtime may become a battleground, with parents and kids engaging in power struggles over what foods are served and how much is eaten. This can lead to feelings of guilt, shame, and helplessness for parents, and can impact the overall quality of family life.

A frustrated-looking mother holding a young girl on her lap in a restaurant booth

How to Identify If Your Child Has a Picky Eating Habit

Identifying picky eating habits in children with autism can be tricky, as many of the behaviors associated with picky eating are also generally common behaviors among children with autism. However, there are some signs to look out for that may indicate a picky eating habit. These include:

· Refusing to eat certain foods or food groups

· Eating only a limited variety of foods

· Preferring foods with specific textures or flavors

· Avoiding foods based on visual cues, such as color or arrangement

· Exhibiting extreme reactions to certain foods, such as gagging or vomiting

· Becoming anxious or upset at mealtime

· Exhibiting rigid or repetitive behaviors, such as only eating foods in a certain order or at a certain time of day

If you suspect that your child may have a picky eating habit, it's important to consult with your healthcare provider to rule out any underlying medical issues or nutritional deficiencies.

Strategies to Help Your Child Overcome Picky Eating Habits

If your child has picky eating habits, there are several strategies you can try to help them expand their food choices and become more adventurous eaters. Here are some tips to get you started:

Creating a Sensory-Friendly Mealtime Environment

One of the first steps in addressing picky eating habits is to create a sensory-friendly mealtime environment. Start by minimizing distractions, such as television or electronic devices, and creating a calm and quiet atmosphere. You may also want to consider using a specific plate like this parent favorite or utensils that your child is comfortable with, or incorporating sensory toys or fidgets to help your child stay calm and focused during mealtime.

Introducing New Foods to Your Child's Diet

Introducing new foods to your child's diet can be a daunting task, but there are several strategies you can try to make the process easier. Start by offering small amounts of new foods alongside familiar foods, and avoid overwhelming your child with too many new foods at once. You can also try incorporating new foods into familiar dishes, such as adding vegetables to pasta sauce or smoothies. Finally, be patient and persistent, and offer new foods repeatedly over time, even if your child initially refuses them.

Tips for Meal Planning and Preparation

Meal planning and preparation can also play a role in helping your child overcome picky eating habits. Start by involving your child in the meal planning process, and allowing them to choose some of the foods that will be served. You can also try incorporating new foods into familiar dishes, as mentioned above, or presenting foods in a fun and creative way, such as arranging fruits and vegetables into a colorful rainbow. Finally, be flexible and open to your child's preferences, and don't be afraid to offer alternatives if a certain food is consistently refused.

Working with a Healthcare Professional to Address Picky Eating in Children with Autism

If your child's picky eating habits are persistent or severe, it may be helpful to seek the support of a healthcare professional. A registered dietitian or feeding therapist can help assess your child's nutritional needs and develop a customized plan to address picky eating habits. They can also provide guidance and support to help you navigate mealtime challenges and build healthy eating habits for your child.

Encouragement for Parents of Picky Eaters with Autism

While picky eating habits in children with autism can be challenging, it's important to remember that it's possible to help your child overcome these habits and become a foodie. By understanding the reasons behind picky eating, creating a sensory-friendly mealtime environment, introducing new foods in a patient and persistent way, and seeking the support of healthcare professionals when needed, you can help your child develop healthy eating habits and enjoy a wider variety of foods. With patience, persistence, a little creativity, and seeking outside professional support if needed, you can help your child develop a healthy relationship with food to go from fussy to foodie.

Build a Better Eater book for parents of picky eaters

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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