Children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) often have trouble accepting an array of tastes, textures and temperatures of foods. As noted in recent studies on the topic, “the estimated prevalence of feeding problems in children with autism has been reported to be as high as 90 percent, with close to 70 percent of children described as selective eaters.”
Indeed, children with autism frequently face difficulty eating in school cafeterias and restaurants, which also have overstimulating and overwhelming sensory environments. They might want specific brands, colors or even shapes of food. Speech-language pathologist address many aspects of feeding treatments during individual sessions, and they also offer strategies for parents to try at home. These three tips are easy ways for parents to help facilitate better eating for children with autism and support their speech-language pathologists work as well.
- Sit at the table: The first step in learning to tolerate just the presence of a new food involves learning to eat meals at a table. Understandably, because mealtimes equal stress, parents allow their kids to wander about the house and graze or sit in front of a tablet or TV while they eat. Sitting at the table for meals, and when possible, snacks, establishes a meal-time routine and creates a hunger pattern that encourages children to feel hungry at established mealtimes. Additionally, proper seating provides the right stability for learning to use utensils and bite, chew and swallow more challenging foods. Foot rests also add stability for kids whose feet don’t yet reach the floor when they sit. If children have trouble staying at the table for mealtimes, start by teaching them to stay at a table for other fun activities by keeping the time short and doing things they prefer to do. Then introduce less-preferred activities while keeping the time at the table to a manageable amount.
- Build familiarity: A common difficulty parents encounter with children who are highly selective eaters is that children may limit themselves to one brand of pizza or one shape of cereal, or even a specific color of their plate. Sometimes, before we build familiarity around new tastes, we need to help a child with autism feel comfortable with new packaging or unfamiliar visual aspects of food, like a square chicken nugget rather than a dinosaur-shaped chicken nugget, before approaching other sensory properties of new foods. One way is to begin by putting the containers, the plate, the utensil or whatever is challenging to the child on the table where he’s eating. Start by putting unfamiliar objects farther away at first, but, if possible, begin by encouraging your child to engage with the new item, even if it’s to hand the item back to you! The point of building familiarity with anything new is to help your child become comfortable with the concept of “new,” whether it’s a new type of milk carton or, eventually, a different-tasting milk. Children with autism like to stick with known foods and objects because new and unfamiliar experiences can raise anxiety. In response to anxiety, being rigid about their food choices is one way to feel in control and calmer in an already-challenging world.
- Expose, Explore, Expand: Children with autism need exposure to new foods, even if it starts with just a new package, as described in tip two. But once a child is becoming comfortable with new exposures to visual aspects of food, begin helping them explore those foods with all their senses. Every child is unique in their willingness to participate in food play, cooking, gardening or other explorations, but gentle encouragement from supportive parents encourages the child to participate in these opportunities and allows him to continue to build familiarity with a variety of nutritious foods!
Understandably, parents of children who have autism get overwhelmed themselves, especially if their child participates in many different types of therapies. Dividing their home routine into manageable, small segments sets everyone up for success and ultimately supports the speech-language pathologist’s treatment plan. So, whether the child and parent must begin with learning to stay seated at a table or they can begin to explore all the sensory properties of food early on in treatment, these tips help parents become a part of the process by breaking it down into the smallest steps, a few strategies at a time, that help both their child and their passionate therapists succeed together!
Interested in more ways to help your child with autism? Check out our online resources!