Hi, I’m Craig Kendall, the author of The Asperger’s Syndrome Survival Guide. In today’s issue we will discuss…
My Child with Autism Is a Picky Eater. What Can I Do?
So your child is a picky eater. It happens to all of us at one time or another.
If you’re like most autism parents, you’re stressing out over how you’re going to get the proper nutrients into your child, and whether a diet composed exclusively of chicken nuggets and potato chips is really at all healthy.
Or, perhaps you are trying out a gluten and casein free diet and can’t figure out how to get your child to try the new foods. Here are some things that might help.
Picky Autism Eater – Four Step Behavioral Approach
Step 1. Understand the Anxiety Your Child with Autism May Feel
Try to understand where your child’s reluctance and anxiety comes from. Does your child with autism hate the taste? The texture? The smell? The color? Imagine what you would feel like if someone told you that you had to eat, for example, a snail. Forgetting even the taste, what is that going to feel like going down? Probably about the same way a lot of common foods feel like for kids with autism! So you need to start them off small.
Step 2. Have a Favorite Food Ready as a Reward
You will need a “food reward” here, a food that the child really likes. Maybe it’s M&Ms or French fries or whatever it is. Make sure it can be divided into small portions. You will see why you need this in Step 3.
Step 3. Go Slowly, and Reward Your Child for Each Success
You take whatever the food you want the child to eat is, maybe some meat or a vegetable, and break it up into very small steps.
- The first goal, assuming the child is particularly squeamish, is to get the food near the child’s mouth without actually making them eat it. Next have it touch their mouth without eating it.
- Now give one of the favored foods, such as a French fry, to try to encourage and reward them for having the preferred food touch their lips.
- To get the next reward, your child must put the preferred food in his or her mouth, and then to actually take a bite. Reward them at each step.
- Have them take progressively larger bites – not too many per session so that you don’t overwhelm them – and soon enough they should be used to the taste and texture enough that they won’t be so afraid. They still might not like the food, but at least they will probably eat it.
Step 4. Clear Out Your Cabinets…Leaving Only Preferred Foods
This may take a while, so you have to be prepared to do a lot of work. Some people advocate hiding all other foods until the child eats the desired food, but others think there is little to be gained from letting a child go hungry for longer than a few hours or a day – it would be a judgment call for you. You don’t want to starve your child with autism, you just want to encourage them to eat some foods that might be healthier for them.
Let’s say your child only will eat pizza. Make sure food that you do not want your child to eat is at least hidden from view. It will be very tough getting your child to eat vegetables if cold pizza is visible in the refrigerator.
Taking away foods may be easier than adding new foods. If that happens, don’t despair. Talk to your doctor about adding vitamins into your child’s diet to make up for any missing nutrients.
Other Tips to Solve Picky Eating for Children with Autism
- Make eating as fun as possible. For example, I talked to an adult with autism who liked to draw smiley faces on her food with ketchup when she was a kid. She might not have necessarily liked the taste of the food, but she looked forward to making the smiley faces every time. Cut things into fun shapes. Make a game out of it if you can.
- If you offer different and healthy foods at every meal with little pressure to try them, eventually your child may get curious and decide on their own to try them.
- Try to choose new foods that have similar textures or flavors to what the child already eats. For example, switching potato chips with corn chips or trying strawberries if your child likes strawberry ice cream.
- If you have to, try to sneak the veggies in! There are various ways you can do this, and even a brand of foods called “Sneaky Chef” that makes traditional looking kid foods with vegetables added.
It may be hard work, but if you follow these tips you will be well on your way to solving your autism child’s poor eating habits.