Tips for parents of children with tight eating habits and problematic mealtime behaviors
It’s common for kids on the autistic spectrum to have difficulty with eating. Because of this, encouraging children to eat a variety of healthful foods may be challenging. Additionally, it can lead to a lot of arguments over food.
Children with autism may struggle with a variety of food-related issues. They might favor items that have a certain mouthfeel, such as crunchy or soft foods. Children who only consume soft foods may have weak jaw muscles that find it difficult to chew harder foods. It can be difficult for kids to sit still and behave appropriately during mealtimes.
Start by deciding on one goal to help a child with autism become less picky about what they consume. Does it increase the number of foods your child will eat? How much do they consume? longer time spent at the table? It is important that everyone in the child's home and school is aware of the goal.
Next, take small steps and give your child compliments. Start with a tiny amount when trying new foods. Then give your kid a lot of compliments for taking a taste. Compliment them if the goal is to sit at the table for 10 minutes. Do not insist on another ten. Keep trying and being patient. Even if the situation improves slowly, it will.
Children on the spectrum struggle with change, so when their eating habits change, they may act out. Usually, temper tantrums can be reduced by ignoring them. Only take action if the child is acting dangerously.
WHAT DOESN’T WORK?
Before we talk about what may work, it’s helpful to talk about what we know doesn’t work…
It's best to avoid attempting to "trickle" your kid into trying new foods (i.e., hiding vegetables in sauce). While this can or sometimes be effective, it can also backfire if your child notices the addition and later develops an increased suspicion toward all foods.
“Insisting” that your child eat only healthy foods.
Expecting your child to imitate other children.
WHAT MAY WORK?
Introduce new meals regularly to help your child develop familiarity with their smell, appearance, and texture.
To help your child become desensitized, offer new foods to them once or twice daily. Don't put any pressure on your youngster to try it or eat it; the key is to expose them to it repeatedly.
Choose foods that best suit your child's "sensory needs," such as raw carrots, celery, and apples if they enjoy crunchy foods. Alternately, experiment with novel items that are similar to your favorites, such as yogurt with a different flavor or a different brand of the same food (if your child enjoys yogurt).
For extreme cases, start with a more systematic approach. Children who will only eat one particular food from a particular restaurant and presented in a specific way. For such cases, start by having the child be accepting of variations of that same food.
Try extremely modest amounts of naturally occurring smooth or pureed meals (like applesauce). This is because swallowing is practically a given when your toddler eats a spoonful of pureed food. Gradually increase the biting size.
Premack Principle- Presenting a generous portion of a popular food contingent on the child eating a small amount of a new food. Systematically decreasing popular food amounts and increasing the portions of the new food.
Introduce various new foods not just one at a time. The goal is for the child to be flexible with a variety of foods and not to create rigidity by choosing only one food at a time.
Eliminate snacking in between meals and stick to a daily, consistent schedule of meals and snacks.
Kids regularly consume liquids in between meals, which reduces their likelihood of feeling hungry when it is time to eat. With regard to activity level and weather, you can think about restricting access to liquids (especially high-sugar, high-calorie liquids) in between meals and sticking to water to support hydration.
The Picky Eater's Favorites
Nuggets, Taquitos and other Breaded, Fried foods Potato Chips, French Fries, Tater Tots Pizza (Plain, maybe Meat Sauce) Macaroni and Cheese Grilled Cheese Peanut Butter (Jelly maybe) Hamburgers (plain and without cheese) Hot Dogs (plain)Candy, Cookies, Cake (a few kinds)
A Team Approach
It is important to recognize that eating issues may be a result of different challenges that the child is experiencing. Such challenges can be not only behavioral, but may be a result of sensory issues or challenges with chewing and swallowing. Essential Speech and ABA Therapy utilizes such an approach by having our BCBAs. Occupational and Speech Therapists work together to determine the issues and how to best assist the child.