Food Fears and Autism: How to Help Your Child

Food Fears and Autism: How to Help Your Child

Key points:

  1. Food avoidance in children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is rooted in sensory processing issues and fear of the unknown. It can manifest as refusal to eat certain foods, difficulty trying new foods, or extreme dislike of certain textures, smells, or tastes.
  2. Sensory issues are common in children with ASD, involving sensitivities to stimuli like sight, smell, sound, and touch. These sensitivities can make it challenging for them to interact with their environment, including when it comes to food. Sensory issues may lead to food aversions, difficulty with utensils or mealtime rituals, and even food phobias.
  3. When helping your autistic child with food-related sensory issues, establishing a routine for meals, providing a safe space for them to express their concerns, offering alternative food options, desensitizing slowly, practicing patience, and seeking professional help when needed are valuable strategies to help them overcome their food fears and enjoy mealtimes.

Does your autistic child struggle with food-related sensory issues? My youngest son struggles greatly with food-related sensory issues. My husband and I have tried many ways and techniques to help our son overcome his food avoidance. I know we are not alone in this. It is common for children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) to experience sensory issues surrounding food. As a parent, you may feel helpless and overwhelmed at times, but there are ways to help your child diversify his diet. In this post, we will explore some techniques to help your child with food-related sensory issues and how to manage food-related fear. With the right knowledge and support, you can help your child work through their food fears and enjoy mealtimes.

What is Food Avoidance?

Food avoidance is an issue commonly seen in children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). It can present in various forms, such as refusal to eat certain foods, difficulty trying new foods, or extreme dislike of certain textures, smells or tastes. It is important to understand that this is not a conscious choice for the child. Rather, it is rooted in sensory processing issues and fear of the unknown.

When children with ASD are presented with unfamiliar food, they often become overwhelmed and feel unsure of what to expect from the experience. In turn, this leads to anxiety and fear of the food itself. Other times, the child may have experienced negative reactions when trying new foods in the past, causing them to develop a fear of food. Some children may have also had bad experiences with taste, texture or smell of certain foods, leading them to avoid them.

Additionally, many children with ASD are sensitive to their environment and feel overwhelmed when presented with a lot of stimuli. This can make it difficult for them to focus on eating when they’re surrounded by new sights and sounds. Eating in unfamiliar places or situations can be especially overwhelming and can lead to food avoidance.

It’s important to remember that food avoidance in children with ASD is not always a reflection of picky eating habits. There may be underlying reasons why your child is avoiding food. And, it’s important to address these issues so that your child can begin to enjoy mealtimes again.

What are Sensory Issues?

Sensory issues are a common problem for children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). These issues involve sensitivities to certain kinds of stimuli, such as sight, smell, sound, and touch. For example, a child may be overwhelmed by loud noises or have an aversion to certain textures. These sensitivities can make it difficult for them to interact with their environment.
The types of sensory issues that a child may experience vary depending on the individual. Some children may be sensitive to loud noises or bright lights, while others may be averse to particular textures or scents. In some cases, they may be over-sensitive or under-sensitive to certain stimuli. This means they may be overwhelmed by certain stimuli or not respond to it at all.
When it comes to food, sensory issues may cause a child to avoid certain foods due to the texture, taste, smell, or other factors. They may also have difficulty with utensils or mealtime rituals, such as sitting at the table. In some cases, these issues can lead to food phobias and aversion to eating.
Sensory issues are an important factor to consider when helping your autistic child with food phobias and other eating difficulties. Understanding the root causes of their sensitivities can help you find ways to better support them in managing their eating habits.

Tips for Helping Your Child

Establish a routine:

Meal times can be especially stressful for children with ASD and food phobias. Establishing a routine for meals can help your child feel more comfortable and secure when it comes to food. This may include eating at the same time each day, making meals in the same order, and having the same types of food available.

Talk to them about their feelings:

One of the best ways to help your child manage their fear around food is by talking to them about what they are feeling. Try to provide a safe, non-judgemental environment where they can openly express their concerns and worries without fear of repercussions. It’s also important to remember that their concerns are valid and shouldn’t be minimized or dismissed.

Offer alternatives:

If your child is feeling overwhelmed by certain textures or flavours of food, try offering them different options. This could be anything from swapping one type of food for another. Or, altering the presentation of food, such as cutting it into small pieces or adding different toppings. Our son enjoys chocolate flavoured milk and we found a milk shake that offer all the vitamins and minerals he needs to grow. It is especially designed for picky eater until the age of 10.

Desensitize slowly:

If your child is especially sensitive to certain foods, try desensitizing them slowly. Start by introducing the food in a non-threatening way, such as letting them touch it or smell it. Once they become comfortable with this step, you can gradually move on to tasting small amounts of the food. We have been using this technique with our son for years and we are hoping that one day it will pay off.

Take your time:

When it comes to helping your child with food phobias, patience is key. Avoid rushing your child and instead let them take their time when trying new foods or flavours. Also keep in mind that while some children may only need a few attempts before they become comfortable with something, others may need more time and more repetition before they can fully accept it.

Seek professional help:

If you find yourself struggling to help your child overcome their fear around food, consider seeking out professional help. A psychologist or therapist who specializes in working with food avoidance in children on the autism spectrum is preferable. Unfortunately, they can be incredibly rare. My husband and I are still looking for one…

References:

  • “Just Take a Bite: Easy, Effective Answers to Food Aversions and Eating Challenges!” by Lori Ernsperger and Tania Stegen-Hanson: This book addresses various eating challenges and provides practical strategies to help children with autism overcome food aversions and sensory issues.
  • “Food Chaining: The Proven 6-Step Plan to Stop Picky Eating, Solve Feeding Problems, and Expand Your Child’s Diet” by Cheri Fraker, Mark Fishbein, and Sibyl Cox: This book introduces a systematic approach called “food chaining” to expand a child’s diet by gradually introducing new foods based on their preferences and sensory needs.
  • “Autism and Diet: What You Need to Know” by Rosemary Kessick: This book explores the relationship between autism and diet, including discussions on sensory issues, food aversions, and nutritional considerations. It offers practical advice for parents on implementing dietary changes to support their child’s overall health and well-being.
  • “The Eating Game: Positive Feeding Solutions for Autism and Picky Eating” by Jean Nicol: This book provides a structured program using a visual tool called “The Eating Game” to encourage children with autism to try new foods and expand their diet. It offers strategies to address food aversions and sensory issues.
  • “The Out-of-Sync Child Has Fun: Activities for Kids with Sensory Processing Disorder” by Carol Kranowitz: While not specific to food issues, this book offers a range of sensory-based activities to help children with sensory processing difficulties, including those related to food. It provides ideas for play and exploration that can indirectly support children in overcoming food aversions.

Remember, each child with autism is unique, so it’s important to consult with professionals, such as paediatricians, occupational therapists, or nutritionists who specialize in working with children with autism, to develop an individualized plan that suits your child’s specific needs.

https://www.autism.org.uk/advice-and-guidance/topics/behaviour/eating

https://boostneurodiversity.com/

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