Are mealtimes stressing you out? You’re not alone! A 2006 study investigating autism and feeding problems showed that 50 – 90% of kids with autism spectrum disorder have maladaptive feeding behaviors.
Here I’m discussing five common causes of picky eating habits in children with autism and giving you simple ways to improve these feeding problems.
5 Common Causes of Picky Eating in Children with Autism and How to Help
- Sensory issues: It is common for kids with autism to have sensory issues. These sensory sensitivities or aversions can affect your child’s food preferences. Kids with sensory issues may prefer or avoid specific textures, temperatures, colors, or smells of food.
How to help: If a sensory issue is to blame for your child’s picky eating habits you can try serving foods at different temperatures. I often serve my children peas and corn straight from the freezer, not only do they taste sweeter this way, but there’s no off-putting smell.
You can also try pureeing a mix of onions, celery, carrots, and zucchini and add the blend to meatballs, sauces, or meatloaf. This method hides the texture and taste of the vegetables but still provides the nutrition.
- Zinc deficiency: As I discussed in my earlier video, What You Need to Know About Zinc Deficiencies and Autism, a zinc deficiency can affect your child’s taste and smell. Pyrrole disorder is a fairly common issue for kids with autism. Kids with pyrrole disorder urinate out too much zinc and vitamin B6 which, as a result, affects their taste and smell, and can lead to picky eating.
How to help: You can determine if your child has a zinc deficiency with a simple at-home test called Zinc Tally. The most effective treatment for zinc deficiency is the use of zinc supplements. My Autism Essentials List contains my recommendation for a trusted, high quality, third-party tested zinc supplement.
- Aversion to change: Kids with autism crave routine and predictability. What does this mean for mealtime? This aversion to change means a child with autism may refuse to eat off of a different plate or may only eat a particular brand of chicken nuggets. It may also manifest as a refusal to eat foods of a particular color or the desire to keep each type of food separated on their plate. New foods, or foods with a strong smell or taste, may cause your child’s sensory system to become overwhelmed. This can result in food refusal.
How to help: If your child is resistant to change remember to present new foods calmly and remain unemotional. I recommend serving your picky eater the same thing you serve everyone else in small amounts so you’re not singling out one child. It’s helpful to have clear and consistent family rules when it comes to mealtime like, “Everyone has to try three bites of each food on their plate.” Setting a clear routine with consistent expectations can relieve some of your child’s mealtime anxiety.
- Oral motor difficulties: Kids with autism often have difficulty coordinating the task of chewing and swallowing. This increased difficulty can lead to frustration which in turn can lead to feeding problems.
How to help: If your child struggles to coordinate the surprisingly complex task of chewing, swallowing, and breathing that’s required to eat, you may need to seek the assistance of a feeding therapist or a speech and language pathologist who specializes in feeding. These professionals can help you develop a plan of oral motor exercises to address your child’s individual needs.
- Candida or yeast overgrowth: In my three-part video series, How Yeast Overgrowth Affects Children with Autism, I discuss, in-depth, how yeast overgrowth contributes to a variety of challenging behaviors associated with ASD. Yeast overgrowth can cause your child to crave sweets instead of foods containing protein, fats, or nutrient-rich vegetables.
How to help: The use of probiotics or prescription medication can be helpful if your child’s picky eating habits are being caused by candida or yeast overgrowth. I suggest working with a knowledgeable functional medicine provider or naturopath to help determine an appropriate treatment plan for your child.
Additional Tips for Helping Your Picky Eater
Even after you’ve determined the cause of your child’s picky eating habits and tried some of the tips I’ve shared, you may still find your child’s diet is lacking in overall nutrition. Here are some great ways to get the good stuff in without a fight.
- Juicing and smoothies: Juice and smoothies are a wonderful way to sneak additional nutrients into your child’s diet. You can use a variety of different foods or powders to meet your child’s nutritional needs and disguise the taste with their favorite flavors. If your son or daughter doesn’t like the texture of smoothies, you can freeze the blend into popsicles too.
- Add gelatin or collagen powder to smoothies and soups: The addition of gelatin or collagen powder to smoothies or soups is a great way to get some additional protein into your child’s diet. Both gelatin and collagen are tasteless additions to favorite foods that pack a nutritious punch.
- Limit snacks: If you cut out snacks and caloric drinks like juice or milk before meals, your child will be hungrier when it’s time to eat which will make them more apt to try what you’re serving that day.
- Use bone broth: Bone broth is a nourishing substitute for chicken broth, vegetable broth, or beef broth. It can replace these items in any recipe and you’ll get the added nutritional value of healthy fats, protein, amino acids, minerals, and nutrients.
- Ditch the junk food: This simple solution can solve a lot of problems. Even for us adults, resisting the temptation of a bag of chips or a box of cookies can seem impossible. But, if you remove the temptation you, and your kids, are forced to make healthier food choices.
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Be gentle with yourself. You’re doing a great job.
I hope this information has been helpful to you as part of creating Your Autism Game Plan.
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