Autism and Picky Eating: From Barriers to Breakthroughs
Does your child with autism have difficulty eating a variety of foods? Does mealtime often turn into a battle?
Picky eating is a common struggle, even among neurotypical kids, but parents of children with autism often face a higher level of complexity in this area. This battle is multi-faceted, as it includes resistance to new foods, food aversions rooted in sensory issues, and rigid eating patterns. Additionally, communication challenges can further complicate matters, making it difficult for these children to express their food preferences.
As parents of a child with autism, we have firsthand experience dealing with these challenges. Here are some insights from our journey...
At the start of our parenting adventure, we faced a bunch of tricky situations tied to our child's fussy eating habits. These early encounters kicked off our journey to figure out how to deal with picky eating, especially in the context of autism:
Initially, our child would only eat rice if it had mango on top.
He had a very limited selection of foods, barely five items.
Sitting at the dining table was a constant struggle.
He insisted on using his own fork and spoon.
His preferred dining spot was limited to a specific fast-food restaurant.
Today, our child has come a long way. He enjoys dining out and exploring various foods. While he may still have some preferences, he's willing to try new things.
Challenges remain, like avoiding older-looking restaurants and having specific preferences for meat cuts. But he now even eats a variety of green leafy vegetables (even the leaf of bitter gourd) and handles spicy foods with ease.
The Impact of Picky Eating on Children with Autism and Their Families
Picky eating habits can profoundly affect both the child with autism and their family.
For the child, limited food choices can lead to nutritional deficiencies and hinder overall growth and development. For parents, it can be emotionally draining and strain family dynamics.
For us personally, we've felt moments of social isolation and exclusion during meals with friends and family.
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Strategies That Have Helped Us
Despite these challenges, there is hope, and there are strategies that can break down these barriers and expand your child's diet. However, it's crucial to consult with your pediatrician and therapists first to rule out any medical issues that may contribute to picky eating.
Here are some techniques that have worked for us:
1. Adapt the Dining Environment
I realized that adapting the dining environment can make a world of difference. Initially, a regular dining table seemed overwhelming for my child, so we switched to a smaller, more accommodating one.
We made sure to join him at the small table as well, emphasizing that it's not always about him making adjustments. It's about creating a comfortable space where he can be himself.
2. Vary Tableware
Experimenting with various tableware can add a fun twist to mealtime. It's as simple as changing our dining wares now and then. Of course, you don't need to do this frequently, but I found it helped my child become more adaptable to change.
However, I wouldn't recommend this if your child can't sit still at the dining table. It's all about avoiding overwhelming them. Remember, the key is to take gradual steps, ensuring that every adjustment feels comfortable and manageable for your child.
3. Model Eating Habits
My husband and I decided to lead by example when it came to enjoying a variety of foods.
We made it a point to show our enthusiasm and appreciation for different dishes, sometimes even exaggerating our reactions more than we normally would, but always in a genuine way.
Our modeling wasn't limited to mealtimes; we extended it to casual moments, like lounging on the couch and sharing stories. It's about creating a culture of excitement around food. For instance, I'd say something like, 'I can't wait to have pumpkin soup tomorrow,' or 'I've been craving pineapples lately.'
These moments helped foster a positive attitude towards trying new foods and added a sense of anticipation to our mealtimes.
4. Peer Influence
I've come to appreciate the impact of peer influence on a child's eating habits. When my son attended playschool and mingled with other kids during snack times, it sparked his curiosity about trying different snacks. I noticed that he would often choose new and exciting options when we went grocery shopping for school snacks. Being around a group of children truly had a positive effect on his willingness to explore new flavors.
5. Sensory Introduction
In my experience, gently introducing new foods to my child's diet has been a game-changer. Think of it like a series of baby steps, helping them become more familiar with unfamiliar foods.
It all starts with making sure they see the new food item often. After a few days, encourage them to take a closer whiff, allowing them to explore its scent. Then, on another day, give them the chance to touch it, fostering a tactile connection.
And before diving into a small bite, here's a playful twist: ask them to give it a gentle kiss, as if they're making friends with the food.
Remember, it's all about the "baby steps" approach, respecting their pace and building their comfort one step at a time.
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6. Food Chaining
In my journey as a parent, I've discovered the power of food chaining. It's like finding the perfect starting point that resonates with your child's preferences.
For instance, my son had a fondness for moringa, so we decided to build on that foundation. We introduced a variety of vegetables with a similar color to moringa, gradually expanding his palate while staying within his comfort zone.
It's all about understanding your child's unique cues and using them as a gateway to explore new flavors and textures.
So, If your child likes a specific texture or color, start from there to introduce variety.
7. Leverage Interests
I've found that tapping into your child's interests can be a key to making mealtime more enjoyable. Pay attention to what currently captivates their imagination.
For instance, my son went through a phase where he was fascinated by Patrick from 'SpongeBob SquarePants' devouring burgers. So, we decided to seize that moment and introduce him to burgers (I know, not the healthiest, but it worked, and a little indulgence won't hurt).
It's all about adapting to their ever-changing interests and using them as a delightful gateway to expand their food choices.
8. Influence of Ads
For a while, we avoided local TV programs because my son preferred watching YouTube, where he could skip commercials.
However, during the Covid pandemic that we decided to move to the countryside, my son also changed his viewing habits. To our surprise, as we started watching local channels, something remarkable happened. Whenever he saw commercials showcasing a variety of foods, it sparked his curiosity and made him eager to try them.
This experience served as a vivid reminder of the potent impact of advertisements and their ability to unexpectedly ignite our children's interest in exploring new tastes and flavors.
9. Read Stories
As a homeschooling parent, I've got the freedom to adjust our curriculum, which comes with some fantastic benefits.
One of the things I found really helpful was weaving mealtime stories into our lessons. It was a clever way to gently introduce my child to a variety of foods without putting any pressure on him to actually eat them.
Plus, since it's part of his lessons, it sends the message that food is important. These stories also emphasized the value of good nutrition and slowly ignited my child's curiosity about different foods. I can't stress enough how much of a game-changer this was!
And here's the kicker: even if you're not homeschooling, this is a trick you can easily incorporate into your daily routine.
10. Visual Schedules
One thing that's worked well for us is using visual schedules. These are basically images that outline what our child can expect before, during, and after a meal. Think of it as a way to give them a heads-up on what's coming. It's essential to remember that it's not just the food itself or the surroundings that can affect their meal experience, but also the sequence of events.
11. Create a Sensory-Friendly Meal Environment
Make sure your dining area is a sensory haven, free from distractions like loud noises, harsh lights, or any odors that might bother your child. Paying attention to these seemingly minor details can make a world of difference in helping your child savor mealtime. Though sometimes, I intentionally introduced elements that weren't initially pleasing to my child, but the trick here is gradual desensitization, allowing them to adapt over time.
12. Ditching the Screen
I get it; many times, our kids will only sit down for a meal if there's a screen in front of them. But I found that slowly reducing screen time can actually help them appreciate their food more. I wouldn't suggest going cold turkey and banning screens altogether during meals because, believe me, that can lead to some resistance. Instead, I've learned that taking small steps, gradually weaning them off this habit, makes for a smoother transition and a more enjoyable mealtime experience.
13. Positive Reinforcement
In my parenting journey, I've learned the power of positive reinforcement and you can apply this to anything, not just on mealtime. It's a fancy term for something quite simple.
When you're teaching your child, you might sometimes sound like you're scolding them. This can be stressful for kids, especially when they're trying to follow lots of instructions. So, here's my secret: balance it out with lots of heartfelt praise. I aim for a ratio of five praises for every piece of guidance or gentle reprimand. It's all about making your child feel encouraged, supported, and genuinely appreciated.
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A Holistic Approach
While picky eating is just the tip of the iceberg, I've come to understand that the core challenge for kids with autism lies in addressing sensory issues holistically. Here are some strategies I've found helpful:
Balanced Diet: We made a conscious effort to reduce sugary and salty junk foods, like soft drinks, milk chocolates, potato chips, and cheese puffs, to ensure a balanced diet.
Oral Sensory: If your child struggles with toothbrushing, consider working on this issue first. It's essential for them to become accustomed to different sensations in their mouth.
Massage Therapy: Incorporating massage sessions with sensory brushes can be an underrated yet effective way to address sensory issues. In our case, it worked wonders for my son.
Barefoot Experiences: Encourage your child to walk barefoot on sand and grass. I noticed a significant improvement in my son's sensory issues after a beach trip.
Travel Adventures: Our decision to travel to various places as a family allowed my son to explore different foods, expanding his culinary horizons and sensory comfort zones.
Final Notes from the Spectrum Mommy
As I wrap up, I want to share a few key takeaways from my own experience.
First, let's talk about baby steps. We often assume that getting our picky eaters to take a spoonful is the equivalent of a baby step. But the truth is, baby steps can be even tinier than that like the barely noticeable strides of a baby ant. And that's absolutely okay. Progress is progress, no matter how tiny it seems.
Next, don't give up easily. Building new eating habits can be a challenge, but it's definitely doable. Consider keeping a simple journal to track the new foods your child is trying. You'll be surprised at the progress you've made, and that's what really matters.
Lastly, it's not just about what's on the plate. It's about creating an environment that makes your child feel both comfortable and curious.
By sharing our journey, I hope to inspire and assist other parents facing similar challenges. Your child's food journey can transform, and with patience, determination, and the right strategies, you can guide them on their culinary adventure.