While having autism can come along with food aversions, it doesn’t mean you can’t have nutritious and enjoyable meals.
Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a developmental condition that causes a person to experience differences in their behavior, communication, and learning. Autism affects
Research suggests that eating problems are common in autistic people — and many of these problems stem from factors like aversions to certain tastes and textures or strict food preferences.
Below, we explore why autism can make it harder to eat food, and share some tips on how to overcome these barriers to make eating a more enjoyable experience.
Autistic people, especially children, often experience more difficulties with eating than people without autism. And while many factors may cause eating problems in autistic people, there are a few more common reasons.
Taste or texture aversions
Limited food preferences
Restricted and limited food preferences are common in autistic people. They can range from simple preferences to serious conditions, like avoidant/restrictive food intake disorder (ARFID).
Repetitive food behaviors
Rigid and repetitive behaviors are common in autism. Sometimes these behaviors can extend to activities like eating food and mealtime.
Trouble recognizing cues
“Interoception” describes our sense of awareness of how we feel inside our bodies. Autistic people can find it difficult to interpret interoceptive cues, including those like hunger and thirst.
One 2016 preliminary review explored how ASD affects interoception. According to researchers, interoception is typically altered in autistic people, often leading to being hyporeactive, or under-reactive, of one’s internal state.
If you have difficulty eating because of things like sensory issues or limited food preferences, there are a few things you can do to make sure you’re still eating a nutritious diet.
And by the way, the term “nutritious” in this context doesn’t mean restrictive or strict; it means making sure your body is getting the food it needs and enjoys.
One tool you can use to help yourself become more aware of your diet is a food journal. A daily food journal is a great tool for keeping track of not only the foods you’re eating but also your food preferences and other factors that influence your eating habits.
Once you’re able to identify whether there are any concerns with your diet, there are a few ways you can address these issues:
- Find similar foods: If you have aversions to things like taste and texture but want to expand your diet, try to find foods similar to what you already enjoy. For example, if you like the texture of Tater Tots, there are similar products made from cauliflower, broccoli, or other vegetables.
- Add new foods slowly: As long as you’re meeting most of your nutritional needs, there’s no reason to try and force yourself to eat every food out there. But there’s also nothing wrong with wanting to add new foods to your diet, either. Just make sure you’re adding new foods slowly so you don’t overwhelm yourself.
- Meet with a nutritionist: When you have a limited diet, it can place you at risk of things like nutrient deficiencies. Blood work from your doctor can help figure out if you have any deficiencies. When it comes to addressing these deficiencies, sometimes a nutritionist or dietitian can be helpful.
If you’re planning to meet with a nutritionist or dietitian, it can be helpful to find one who is familiar with the challenges that autistic people experience when it comes to eating. It’ll be much easier to make the changes you need if your nutritionist understands some of the barriers you experience around food.
Autistic people can experience sensory input differently. Many autistic people are what’s known as “hyper-reactive” to sensory experiences. When there’s a lot of sensory input, like sounds, smells, or lights, being hyper-reactive to these things can lead to experiencing sensory overload (overstimulation) or pain.
For autistic people prone to experiencing overstimulation, dining out at a restaurant or eating around a bunch of people can often be a trigger.
If you’ve noticed that you tend to get overwhelmed or stressed while eating out, there are a few strategies you can use to mitigate this:
- Have a plan: First, before you even leave the house, it can be helpful to create a calming strategy that you can use if you notice that you’re becoming anxious or overstimulated. Everyone has different things that help them when they feel overwhelmed, so create a plan using whatever tools are most comfortable for you.
- Research your options: Some larger cities have restaurants dedicated to offering autism-friendly dining experiences. But even if there’s not one in your area, you can review menus and accommodations beforehand.
- Regulate noise: You can also use tools that can help buffer some of the noise when you’re dining out. If loud sounds or chaotic crowds are a trigger, consider wearing headphones to control what you’re hearing. There are even some noise-canceling or noise-reducing earplugs designed to be small and discreet.
- Reduce light: If you’re often bothered by bright lights, try to choose places with darker lighting (like a gastropub) or ask if you can sit in a dimmer part of the restaurant. You could also wear sunglasses.
- Get support: If you’re trying to acclimate yourself to eating in restaurants, let a trusted friend or family member know. They can dine out with you to offer support and help you get home if you become overstimulated.
Eating difficulties are common in autism, especially for autistic people with taste and texture issues, rigid food preferences, and repetitive eating behaviors. Sometimes, these problems can make it difficult for autistic people to eat enough of the foods their bodies need, which can lead to things like nutritional deficiencies.
However, by being aware of these obstacles and making small changes over time, autistic people can turn eating into a healthier and more enjoyable experience for themselves.