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Autism and Food Aversion

Table of Contents

Mac’n cheese without the cheese, nothing green in color, and “never anything crunchy” are examples of food aversions.  

Starting at one, it’s normal for toddlers to become picky eaters. 

We all know a child with a menu of about four to five items they’ll eat when hungry. The expression “my child lives on chicken nuggets and love” is almost true at that age.

However, if your child’s selective food intake continues past five, you may have more than just a picky eater on your hands. You may have a child with autism and food aversion.

Children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) are infamous for their picky eating. They’re not being difficult; they have a sensory sensitivity to specific foods.

But there is help with Heartlinks. Our ABA therapy services can assist you and your family devise a plan to work with your child’s food aversions. 

With an ABA feeding therapy program, the stress you once felt around your child during mealtime can become a thing of the past.

What is Sensory Sensitivity?

Often sensory sensitivity and autism spectrum disorder go hand-in-hand. The sensory issues that are most often associated with autism include hypo or hypersensitivity to a variety of stimuli, including the following:

  • Sights
  • Smells
  • Texture/Touch
  • Tastes  
  • Sounds

What is Food Aversion?

An aversion is any behavior someone exhibits to avoid something for fear of pain or discomfort.

Food aversion occurs when a child regularly refuses to eat certain foods. When they consume it, they experience a sensory overreaction, usually gagging or vomiting at the food’s sight, sound, or smell.

Children with autism can develop ritualistic behaviors around what they will and won’t eat. They are five times more likely to develop food aversions than neurotypical kids.

Kids with ASD often prefer bland foods like plain pasta or white rice.

What is the Link Between Autism and Food Aversion?

Young girl being a picky eater

The majority of children with ASD have food aversions. It’s estimated that 50%-80% of kids on the spectrum have food aversions. 

There are two reasons for this. 

Firstly, many children with Autism food aversion also have a Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD), making it hard to process sensory information. This includes the taste, smell, texture, and appearance of food.

Secondly, kids with ASD often look for consistency in their daily routines, including with their mealtimes. Any change in their meals, such as new colors or textures, brings instability or change, something a child on the spectrum dislikes.

How to Handle an Autistic Food Aversion

The following are a few ways you and your ABA therapist can help work around their food refusal.

Avoid Force-Feeding

Force-feeding involves physically forcing your child to take bites of the foods they have an aversion to. This approach rarely works and usually backfires.  Avoid force-feeding your child and getting angry if they refuse to eat what’s in front of them.

Instead, eat some bites of their food and make positive statements such as “Yum, this tastes wonderful. Maybe next time you might want to try it?”

Provide Choice

Your child with Autism food aversion may need to feel some sort of control over what they put in their mouth. That’s why offering a variety of foods and providing choices is so important. 

For example, if your child needs to eat a vegetable and protein for dinner, place at least two different vegetables and proteins in front of them and let them choose. The act of choosing will be an empowering thing for them and make them feel more in control of their food consumption.

Eliminate Medical Issues

Before you define their dislike for peanut butter as an Autism food aversion, check with your doctor that it isn’t an allergy. 

The reason your child with ASD is clamping their lips shut when they’re presented with a peanut butter and jelly sandwich may be because it gives them a stomach ache once they’ve ingested it.

Gastrointestinal pain and discomfort are common in children on the spectrum. Many of these kids don’t have the communication skills or language to express what’s hurting and maybe why.

Check with your doctor regarding your child’s food refusal to rule out a medical issue. 

Remain Calm

Boy denying food from his Mother

Children with ASD will often need to taste their food several times before they’re willing to consume it entirely. This can be very frustrating for a parent or caregiver that’s just spent 60 minutes in the kitchen preparing the meal!  It’s important to remember to be patient as your child navigates a new food texture.

If your child refuses a particular food even after a dozen tries, they likely don’t enjoy it. It’s time to move on and try something new.

Limit Snacks

Limiting the number of snacks your child consumes throughout the day makes them more likely to be hungry for their meals. It’s important not to say ‘yes’ whenever they ask for a cookie. This can fill them with empty calories, and they won’t have room for the nutrient-dense proteins, vegetables, and starches at their next meal.

Some parents fear saying ‘no’ to their child with ASD for fear of a meltdown, but limiting their snacking is vital to ensure they’ll eat as much of the good stuff as possible.

What are Some Autism-Friendly Foods?

Some children on the spectrum will demonstrate sensory-seeking behaviors. They are less sensitive to oral sensory input; therefore, you often see them chewing on clothes, biting books or pencils, and putting various objects in their mouths. The sensory input they gain from biting and chewing helps them self-regulate. 

If your child is an oral sensory seeker, you should consider that when making them food. The most popular food choice for oral sensory seekers is foods that have a lot of texture, including the following:

  • Apples
  • Grapes
  • Carrots
  • Peppers
  • Chips
  • Crackers
  • Popcorn

Other children on the spectrum will gravitate toward foods with a strong taste, temperature, or flavor. They include the following:

  • Salty pretzels or chips
  • Spicy curries
  • Ice cream, frozen yogurt, or ice cubes
  • Sour fruits such as lemons, grapefruit, or limes.

If your child with ASD has a fixation with a squishy or soft food texture, though they can be messy, they might enjoy one of the following foods:

  • Mangos
  • Egg noodles
  • Bananas
  • Avocados
  • Cottage cheese
  • Peanut or sunflower butter

Unlike squishy foods, soft foods satisfy the child that enjoys something chewy and gentle on the teeth and mouth. Here are some of the most popular soft foods:

  • Roasted vegetables
  • Scrambled eggs
  • Tofu
  • Beans
  • Shredded Fish

Food Aversion and Heartlinks

If you have a child whose dislike of certain foods has become so all-encompassing it’s made mealtime stressful, it’s time to seek help.  

With several locations across the country, the specialists at Heartlinks can offer a proper autism diagnosis and subsequent therapy for your child, including working with food aversions. We provide both in-home treatment and work with your child outside in the community.

Regardless of how overwhelmed you might feel, there is help available. Autism and food aversion is common, and with Heartlinks, we can return your mealtime to the enjoyable experience it once was.

Sign up here for more information on how Heartlinks can help.

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