How to Introduce Your Autistic Child to New Foods

  • Offer Choices
  • Play With Food
  • Pay Attention to Textures
  • Take Baby Steps
  • Stay Calm

Parents struggling with introducing new foods to their child with autism need to know they’re not alone. Although researchers are still attempting to fully understand the connection between picky eating and autism, there are several strategies that parents can implement to gently expand the diets of their autistic children.

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Offer Choices

An autistic child may want to feel control over what he eats. As a parent, it’s important to understand that he might not like certain food — and that’s okay. Allow choices and offer a broad variety to help him feel more at ease with the situation. For instance, if you feel that your child needs one serving of protein and one serving of vegetables for dinner, put five different types of protein and vegetables out and let him choose one of each. By the same token, if you are cooking pasta, ask him to pick one surprise ingredient for the rest of the family to guess during dinner. Give him the option of chicken, applesauce, or peas.

Play With Food

Believe it or not, playing with new food is a great way to introduce new foods to an autistic child as it decreases mealtime anxiety and builds familiarity. Together, try using cookie cutters to cut sandwiches into fun shapes. Make faces on a pizza with veggies. Try finger painting with pasta sauce. As you play with your child, let her watch you eat — and enjoy — the new food.

Pay Attention to Textures

In many cases, children with autism are hypersensitive to textures, so keep in mind that it might be how the food feels in his mouth, not its flavor, that results in an aversion to that particular food. For example, he may cringe from the squishiness of a tomato. Try blending or chopping these types of foods to help smooth out the texture. For instance, that tomato can be blended and cooked into pasta sauce or chopped and turned into salsa.

Take Baby Steps

Many children with autism are afraid of trying something new, and food is no exception. Help your child explore a new food by smelling it, touching it, and simply looking at it. When she’s ready to taste it, she can try licking it or giving the food a “kiss” before taking a whole bite. In some cases, mixing a favorite, tried-and-true food with a new one may help.

Stay Calm

A child may taste a new food more than a dozen times before he is willing to eat it without any struggle. Those with autism may take even longer. It is critical to be patient as your child samples and explores new foods. If, after 12 or so tries, your child still rejects the food, maybe he simply doesn’t like it. Consider offering another food instead. Above all, get creative, and avoid letting mealtime become a battleground.

A review of scientific studies conducted by researchers at Marcus Autism Center at Emory University School of Medicine found that autistic children are five times more likely to experience mealtime challenges such as meal-related tantrums, ritualistic eating behaviors, and extremely narrow food selections. However, following the above tips for introducing new foods to your child with autism can help to expand his or her diet in a gentle way.