Picky Eating with Autism: 7 Tips to Improve Mealtimes

Picky Eating with Autism: 7 Tips to Improve Mealtimes

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Individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) can sometimes have trouble adapting to new stimuli and incorporating changes into their routines. These challenges can complicate their daily lives in several ways many neurotypical folks never consider, including mealtimes. Children with autism who are selective eaters can feel uneasy trying new foods and may reject meals based on factors like color, texture, or food presentation. 
This behavior, typical in many on the spectrum, earns them the title “picky eaters.” However, in clinical circles, picky eating is more commonly called extreme food refusal or falls on the milder end of selective eating. 
Proper nutrition is vital for everyone’s well-being. Sadly, parents often worry about the impact of their ASD loved ones’ picky eating habits. Research suggests that a significant percentage of neurodivergent children—between 46% and 89%—exhibit picky eating behaviors. While there is limited research, there are some connections between autism, fussy eating, and concerns like obesity and malnutrition. These links can be concerning for families that are already stressed and frustrated around mealtimes. 
Moreover, when a child refuses to eat, it can create anxiety for caregivers, making situations like family get-togethers, dining out, and holidays more challenging. Thankfully, as kids grow older, using autism-friendly eating techniques and ABA therapy, in many cases, helps them try a variety of foods and reduce selective eating habits.
In this blog by ABA Centers of New Jersey, we’ve gathered practical suggestions to guide caregivers, autism allies, and autism service providers on how to help your child get the essential nutrients they need in ethical, playful ways that promote healthier responses to eating more food types and making more progress throughout development on the spectrum. 
For more information about ABA Centers of New Jersey, click here. Also, feel free to explore our other blogs about ABA and autism. 

7 Tips to Help Picky Eaters with Autism

Before tackling picky eating in children with autism, it’s essential to confirm that their food aversions aren’t due to underlying health issues. Consider possibilities like allergies, intolerances, and dental problems. Digestive discomfort can also be an aspect of acid reflux that may lead to negative food associations, causing discomfort or pain. Rule out a medical condition before addressing their eating habits through the following actionable steps to ensure you aren’t pushing your loved ones to eat foods that may disagree with their dietary needs. 

1. Create a Positive and Calm Mealtime Environment

Mealtime can be a tricky experience for children with autism, as they may have sensory sensitivities or difficulties with transitions. To help them feel more comfortable while eating meals, create a positive and calm environment by including some helpful elements such as:
  • Soft lighting
  • Soothing background music or something they like to listen to
  • Limiting distractions like television or loud noises
This atmosphere also helps ASD kiddos focus on the food and reduce variables that can exacerbate potential anxieties or distress. 

2. Stick to a Consistent Mealtime Routine

Children with autism thrive on routines, so it’s crucial to establish a consistent mealtime routine that they can rely on. This routine may include designating specific times for meals and snacks, setting up an eating area, and using visual schedules or timers to help them understand and anticipate mealtime. Consistency will also help ease any potential resistance towards trying new foods. 

3. Offer a Variety of Foods

Many children with autism have sensory sensitivities that make it challenging for them to try or accept different textures and tastes. However, it’s essential to expose them to a variety of foods to help expand their palate and offer nutritional diversity. Caregivers can start by introducing small amounts of new foods alongside familiar ones. From there, parents can gradually increase the amounts of food tolerable over time. 
Be patient and persistent when offering new foods, as it may take several attempts before they are willing to try them. To improve the setting, make it as rewarding as possible for them to explore new dishes. 

4. Involve Children in Food Preparation

Children with autism often benefit from hands-on activities, so involving them in food preparation can be a great way to engage them with different foods. Their inclusion might be tasks like measuring ingredients, mixing, or arranging food on plates that offer them a sense of control. Doing so will allow them not only to explore new textures and smells but also increase their sense of empowerment and achievement during mealtime.

5. Make Mealtimes Fun and Interactive

Focusing solely on the food can sometimes be overwhelming for children with autism. To make mealtimes more enjoyable, try incorporating fun and interactive elements like themed meals, eating utensils of different shapes and colors, or encouraging them to use their hands to pick up food when appropriate. Incorporating a playful element into mealtimes helps shift the focus from the food itself to a more playful and immersive experience. 

6. Use Positive Reinforcement Strategies 

Positive reinforcement is a helpful tool for motivating picky eaters with ASD to try new foods. Positive reinforcement may include:
  • Praising them for trying new foods
  • Using rewards like stickers or small treats
  • Incorporating social activities that are highly preferable
These positive rewards help reduce any negative associations with food and make mealtimes more enjoyable for everyone. 

7. Consider ABA therapy for Comprehensive Support

Suppose picky eating habits persist or significantly impact a child’s nutrition. In that case, it may be beneficial to seek support from an ABA provider alongside a medical doctor. ABA providers can work with children to expand their food choices and address any underlying behavioral or sensory issues that may contribute to picky eating. They can also guide parents and caregivers in implementing strategies at home to help promote healthy eating habits. 
By following these tips, you can help picky eaters with autism develop healthier eating habits and expand their food preferences for better experiences with meals in the future. 

It’s Possible to Address Picky Eating and Improve Food Selections in Autism

Picky eating is a common challenge for individuals with autism. Still, with patience and persistence, it is possible to manage it better to improve dietary outcomes and behaviors during mealtimes. By creating a positive mealtime environment, sticking to a consistent routine, offering variety, involving children, and including ABA support, parents and caregivers can help their ASD children develop a healthier relationship with food. 
So don’t give up. Keep trying new strategies until you find what works best for your child. Together, we can help our picky eaters with autism feel more comfortable about food choices so they can grow into healthy adults.
Happy Eating!

More About ASD Symptom Management with ABA Centers of New Jersey

ABA Centers of New Jersey offers comprehensive ABA and autism diagnostic support for children and teenagers living with ASD in regions including Woodstown, Trenton, and Paterson. With years of ABA experience, our team of highly trained ABA providers works together to provide individualized ABA therapy plans for every client we serve based on their distinct needs and goals.  
We understand the challenges of picky eating firsthand. Our ABA team has the knowledge and experience to help children with autism overcome their picky eating habits while also addressing any underlying behavioral or sensory issues that are hindering them.  
To learn more about our services for ASD symptom management with ABA Centers of New Jersey, including picky eating, please get in touch with us via this link or at (855) 620-7888 today. 
Let’s work together to create more dynamic, accommodating lives for individuals on the autism spectrum!
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