Mealtime can be quite the challenge for parents with young children, that’s no secret. Any parent knows the difficulty of successfully introducing new foods into their child’s diet, at some point during the child’s development. For most parents, this is just a phase. One that can be difficult at first, but it’s likely to pass with a bit of encouragement. For parents of children diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder, however, picky eating is more than just a fleeting phase. It can take what is meant to be a time to unwind and share stories from the day with loved ones, and it turns it into a stressful situation for the whole family. Especially for the child on the autism spectrum.
In fact, research suggests that children with autism are five times more likely than other children to have difficulties when it comes to meals, including narrow food selection, rituals and tantrums, according to autismspeaks.org. But what makes children with autism so much more likely to have difficulties when it comes to eating? Well, the answer can be as varied as the degrees of severity on the autism spectrum.
Why are children with autism more likely to have difficulty with eating?
The Indiana Resource Center for Autism suggests three factors to consider when it comes to your child’s picky eating habits: medical, behavioral and environmental. First and foremost, it’s important to rule out medical factors. It’s not unlikely for children with autism to experience gastrointestinal problems. If your child frequently experiences stomach pain or you notice your child clutching his or her stomach after eating, this could be a contributing factor to your child’s eating habits. And this is just one potential medical issue that may be playing a role in keeping your child from eating. So make sure to see a physician, so you can address any medical concerns immediately.
Next, you’ll want to consider behavioral factors. Children with disabilities are more likely to develop eating disorders, such as failure to thrive, rumination, pica, obesity and anorexia nervosa, according to an IRCA article titled “Mealtime and children on the autism spectrum: Beyond picky, fussy, and fads.” Although these may not occur, it’s important to keep an eye out for signs of such disorders and address them as needed. When it comes to addressing such behavioral disorders, it’s best left to behavioral therapists and other medical issues.
It’s already easy to see how mealtime can quickly go from being a peaceful gathering of family members to a stressful situation! But it doesn’t have to be. By this time, you may be asking yourself what you can do, as the parent, to help promote a healthier diet for your child. LakiKid is here to help you, not only ease some of the tension at mealtimes but, take steps towards ensuring your child is eating a balanced, nutritional diet. And this is when it’s time to begin considering environmental factors.
Children, and adults for that matter, with autism perceive sensory inputs differently from others. Sensory inputs are often perceived more intensely, causing the child to become overwhelmed with the environment around them. In a recent blog post, titled “New Semester, New Fidget Toy,” we discussed the sensory difficulties children on the autism spectrum may face when it comes to a classroom. Now, imagine regularly mixing new, unfamiliar smells and tastes into the mix of sensory stimuli. It sounds like a recipe for disaster!
Environmental factors to consider.
When it comes to mealtime, all five senses must be considered. Sight, touch, smell and taste as they directly relate to the food, and sound as it relates to the overall environment where the meal is taking place. “Mealtime and children on the autism spectrum” offers up common environmental issues, related to mealtime, that may play a role in a child’s picky eating:
Some children become accustomed to a certain food looking a certain a way. So, even if you’re serving one of your child’s favorite foods, they still may refuse to eat the meal if it has a different presentation. In more extreme cases, children may require the presentation to be exact each time, down to the dish it is served in. Familiarity is key when considering how to the meal looks.
Touch is very important when it comes to sensory input for children with ASD. Because of this, some children may require food be at a certain temperature or only eat foods with textures that are pleasing to them. Keeping track of which textures a child finds off-putting compared to which ones are pleasing can open up new possibilities for meals.
New and unfamiliar smells may make it difficult for your child to eat. In some cases, even being at the same table as something that isn’t familiar, or simply is uncomfortable, to a child may deter him or her from eating. Growing accustomed to a smell may ease this, but know it may make your child uncomfortable at first.
“Some children with autism spectrum disorders will eat mostly foods that fit into only one of these four categories: sweet, sour, bitter or salty” (“Mealtime and children on the autism spectrum”). And, while they may prefer one or two of these flavor categories, they may also have no interest in another flavor category. It’s also possible that your child might find topping food with a favorite condiment helps. In this case, allowing the child to add the condiment in order to introduce new food types is worth exploring.
Sounds, especially loud noises, can be overwhelming to children with autism. Limiting strange or additional noise at mealtime can help ease your child into eating.
All of these environmental factors should not only be considered when eating at home but when planning a meal out as well. Especially when planning a meal out, for that matter. It’s far easier to control the environment of your own home than that of a crowded restaurant.
Finally, the moment you’ve all been waiting for. Tips on how to implement control over the mealtime environment and introduce new food types to picky children!
- Calm and collected. It’s important not to make eating an argument. This will only intensify the stress you and your child feel over mealtime.
- Ease your way in. When introducing a new food, don’t rush your child. Allow your child to become familiar with the food before eating it. One potential way of doing this is to offer the same new food to children each day, allowing them to see, smell and touch it on a daily basis before they taste it. Even playing with a new food can help the child become accustomed to it!
- Fidgeting. Children with autism benefit greatly from distractions to the overwhelming sensory stimuli around them. Allowing them to have a fidget toy, such as our Foot Fidget Bouncy Chair Bands or Marble Maze Finger Fidget, at the dinner table can help ease discomfort. On top of that, fidget toys are great for helping a restless child remain seated at the table for longer periods.
- Sense of agency. Children on the autism spectrum can really benefit from a sense of control over their own surroundings. Offering several meal choices or including children in the cooking process, allowing them to pick a special ingredient to add to a dish, can help make them feel more in control.
- Never withhold food. Withholding food is sometimes suggested in order to get children to eat other food types. When the child is hungry enough, they’ll give in and eat the new food. However, this strategy has been shown to be dangerous when it comes to children diagnosed with ASD, and it should never be used in such a situation.
- Accommodate. While fidget toys are great for keeping a child at the table longer, don’t force the child to remain seated for too long either. Children with autism may find it difficult to wait for others. You may not want to make your child wait for others to begin or finish eating.
It certainly won’t be easy, but determining what among these factors is contributing to your child’s picky eating, whether it be medical, behavioral and/or environmental, is paramount. After any problems are discovered, a few alterations to mealtime can turn your recipe for disaster into a recipe for success. Remember, be accommodating and calm when it comes to introducing new foods. It’s a process which takes time, but it certainly isn’t impossible.
Feel free to contact LakiKid for more helpful tips, support or any inquiries you may have.
And of course, remember, every kid brings good luck!