Many autistic children have trouble during mealtime. Some older estimates show that between 46 and 89 percent of these children have food selectivity.
In severe cases, a limited diet can result in nutrition deficiencies, poor growth rate, or weight loss.
Other food-related challenges that autistic children might face include:
- displeasure with different types or textures of food
- chewing or swallowing problems
- having a hard time sitting through a family dinner
- difficulty trying new foods
- refusing to eat previously eaten foods
- refusing to touch certain foods or utensils
Read on for 12 tips to help you navigate mealtime with your autistic child.
If mealtime has become a source of conflict, helping your child reduce their stress before a meal may encourage them to become more accepting of sitting and eating.
Relaxation could include anything from reading a favorite book with the child to actively relaxing in a quiet environment.
If your child is often uncomfortable when eating, this may lead to outbursts and stress. It’s a good idea to have their doctor check for any possible illnesses or underlying conditions that could be causing discomfort or pain.
According to one 2014 research review of gastrointestinal problems and autism, autistic children are more likely to have gastrointestinal issues than their neurotypical peers. This can include symptoms such as:
- pain in the abdominal area
So, if mealtime is a source of stress for your autistic child, you may want to talk to their doctor about possible related health issues.
Regular schedules are often very important for autistic children. This includes mealtime. Regularly scheduled meals and snacks help your child know what to expect.
If your child’s meals tend to be in front of the TV, on the go, or generally not at the table, experts at the Marcus Autism Center advise slowly introducing family dinner and other mealtimes at designated places.
To start, they suggest having your child sit for as little as 30 seconds and gradually increasing the time you expect them to sit at the table with you. Ideally, you can work up to 15- or 30-minute meals at the table.
If your child only eats a few foods, you can slowly introduce them to new foods. To do this, try adding the new food to a regularly eaten food. The goal is to gradually gain acceptance of the new food with a very slow introduction. This is sometimes called “food chaining.”
If your child only eats white toast, for example, you could start by introducing different brands of the same variety. Then, you could introduce a whole wheat variety, and eventually add small amounts of butter, jam, or other spreads.
No, you don’t need to start a food fight — but you may be able to motivate your autistic child to try new foods by encouraging them to play.
This may look like making fun shapes with the food or examining the food’s textures, smells, and so on. The idea is to have your child engage with the food as much as possible.
This could also include your child helping with food prep. Exposing your child to cooking the food may encourage them to try the meal they’re making.
Cruciferous vegetables have a number of nutritional benefits. Many are rich in vitamins, minerals, and fiber. Examples of cruciferous vegetables include:
- Brussels sprouts
Some evidence suggests that sulforaphane, a chemical found in cruciferous vegetables, may have a positive effect on autism behaviors.
A 2020 research review of five small clinical trials found that social and behavioral scores improved in autistic children and adults who received sulforaphane supplements.
However, it’s important to remember that this research is still limited, and more studies are needed to understand whether and how sulforaphane affects autism behaviors.
Always talk to your child’s doctor before starting any supplements, and work closely with them to monitor the effects of any supplement use.
Behaviors centered around mealtime may be a way for your child to escape the meal.
Instead of focusing on negative or disruptive behaviors, focus instead on trying to engage your child in conversations about the food. You might consider asking about the food’s colors, texture, and taste to try to capture their attention.
If you want to talk about behaviors, aim to focus on good behaviors. Try praising your child for sitting nicely, trying a new food, or other positive behaviors you see them doing instead of focusing on negative behaviors.
It’s understandable to feel frustrated or overwhelmed when your child refuses to eat or has a mealtime temper tantrum. Still, it’s important to remember that these actions are their way of communicating.
Try to meet your child where they are with their eating progress, and celebrate the small wins around mealtime.
Being patient is also key. It can sometimes take more than 10 exposures to a food before a child or adult knows whether they like it or not, according to the Child Mind Institute.
Also make your expectations clear. This may look like putting a timer on the table to show your child how long they’re expected to sit or letting them know what foods will be added to their plate.
There are many diet options that some parents with autistic children swear by for their child, including a gluten- or casein-free diet. This dietary approach eliminates a lot of foods from your child’s diet, including anything made with wheat or milk products, respectively.
Though these diets get a lot of attention, there’s little evidence showing they have any benefits for most people with autism, according to a
Instead of trying new diets on a whim, talk to your child’s doctor before making any big dietary changes.
Dependencies can form when you give your child only one brand or type of food.
Instead of serving food directly from a marked box, try removing foods from the box immediately and frequently switching the brand of the food item to help avoid dependency on a brand.
Parents and caretakers of autistic children should consider working with a nutritionist. They can help determine whether your child has a nutritional deficit and suggest ways to make diet improvements.
They can also work with you and your child to come up with new ideas for foods to eat.
Other types of professionals who may be able to help with eating and mealtime behaviors are:
- occupational therapists
- speech therapists
It’s well known that some autistic children have issues with posture and gait. If your child is struggling with their posture, they may focus more on keeping themselves upright and sitting than on eating during mealtime.
To help this, try using cushions or rolled-up towels to support their hips and back while sitting at the table.
Ideally, the table should be at their elbow height, and their feet should be flat on the ground. Placing a step stool in front of the chair to support their feet might also help.
No matter what you try, just remember you’re not alone. Trying a new method or working with an expert may be enough to encourage your child to try different foods, become less stressed before meals, and reduce some behaviors.
If you’re still frustrated, talk to your child’s doctor about recommendations for help from other specialists.