Food and Autism: Five Tips for Introducing New Foods to Your Child with Autism

How to Get a Child with Autism to Eat New Foods

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

Many children with autism struggle with food selectivity, food aversion or are picky eaters.  Children with restricted diets due to these mealtime behaviors can suffer from a weakened immune system or nutritional deficiencies.  Complicating things further, children may have food allergies or gastrointestinal issues that cause them to avoid certain foods.  Research shows that individuals with autism tend to have food preferences that include carbohydrates and processed foods, while avoiding fruits and vegetables.  This can lead to weight gain and poor eating habits.  While it’s important to provide these children with a balanced diet, it can often be a challenge for parents.

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 their child’s diet.

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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.

When planning for food choices, some of the best foods for autism include:

  • fatty fish
  • eggs
  • leafy greens
  • fresh fruits

Incorporating these foods can help combat vitamin deficiencies and improve fiber intake.

Other food choices should be avoided.  When planning an autism diet food list, try and avoid:

  • processed meats
  • sugars or refined sugars
  • glutens
  • dairy

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.

The best foods for autistic toddlers who show an interest in playing with their food are:

  • ants on a log
  • colorful veggie plate
  • mashed or soft foods
  • pudding with whipped cream

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 food aversions. 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.

Some autistic children have a distinct preference for specific textures of foods.  These might include crunchy foods like carrots or soft foods like pudding.  Understanding how your child responds to different textures can help you find a variety of foods that meet their sensory needs.

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
  • 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 children with autism spectrum disorders are five times more likely to experience mealtime challenges such as:

  • meal-related tantrums
  • ritualistic eating behaviors
  • extremely narrow food selections

However, following the above tips for introducing new foods to your child with autism spectrum disorder can help to expand his or her diet in a gentle way.  Hopefully these strategies will help your child eat healthy foods.  If you have concerns about how your child eats, you can always consult with a registered dietician.