Autism and Eating Behaviors

Autism and Eating Behaviors

Being a spectrum disorder, the symptoms of autism can significantly vary from one child to the next.

Of those symptoms, food aversions and problematic eating behaviors are fairly common.

Although most parents struggle to feed their children certain foods, particularly those who are picky eaters, the eating behaviors among children with autism are often much more complex. 

These behaviors can lead to unhealthy lifestyles that lack the nutrients the child needs to thrive.

So, how do you know if your concerns require intervention? What do you do if your child refuses to eat nutritious meals? What if they exhibit potentially dangerous behaviors at the table?

We understand that food selectivity and certain mealtime behaviors can be highly worrisome, but with the right therapy and support, your child can develop new, healthy eating habits.

If you’re worried that a child with autism is not getting enough nutrition, this guide will help you navigate the challenges you currently face. The goal is to intervene as early as possible so that you can set your child up for long-term positive health.

How Does Autism Affect Eating?

Several sources report that children with autism are five times more likely to develop feeding issues than their peers. However, recent research conducted at Penn State found that atypical eating behaviors were present in 70% of children with autism, which is 15 times more common than neurotypical children. It was concluded that atypical eating behaviors may be a sign that a child should be screened for autism. According to Susan Mayes, professor of psychiatry, these behaviors may be seen in children as young as one-year-old.

Acknowledging atypical eating behaviors early will allow your child to start treatment sooner, which can improve outcomes long term. Previous research shows that ABA therapy is most effective when implemented during the preschool years. That is why you should remain aware of all early warning signs associated with autism, especially if there is a history of autism in your family.

Related: Detecting Signs of Autism in Children

Although ABA can help address various symptoms of autism to achieve more positive outcomes, in this case, correcting eating behaviors can lead to a more optimal diet. This is one of the most important reasons to intervene. Many of the diets that children with autism prefer will not sustain their well-being. The sooner these behaviors and eating habits are addressed, the better.

Autism and Picky Eating

If you notice feeding problems, such as picky eating, an unwillingness to try new foods, or fluctuating hunger, these may be temporary.

When children are picky eaters, they will typically try new foods as they develop. However, children with autism will remain selective in what they eat. This is the most common feeding concern. For example, children may wish to continue eating baby food. Other children will commonly eat a diet that consists primarily of grain products, such as bread, pasta, and other carbs. In this case, your child may avoid an entire category, like vegetables or protein. You may also notice behavioral problems when given foods they don’t like.

Since children with autism often develop chronic feeding problems, it’s important to discuss your concerns with a healthcare provider as soon as possible. The more reinforced habits are, the harder they are to treat. However, it’s never too late to improve poor eating behaviors.

Mealtime Behaviors

Children with autism can experience immense anxiety during mealtimes. For some, sensory aversions are the cause while others fear trying unfamiliar foods. These feelings of anxiety can shut down a child’s hunger, and they may not get enough food to meet their daily nutritional needs.

Mealtime behaviors range, but may include:

  • Sensory issues — Children with autism may develop a preference for foods that feel a certain way in their mouths. Some will prefer eating foods that are soft, like yogurt or ice cream. Some prefer crunchy foods, like chips. Regardless, this limits the foods your child will eat. Pay particular attention to the way your child responds to certain temperatures or textures.
  • Disruptive behaviors — It can be challenging to get any child to sit at the dinner table for extended periods, but those with autism may take these challenging behaviors to the next level. These behaviors include repeatedly running away from the table or throwing utensils.
  • Underdeveloped oral muscle development — If your child eats almost only soft foods, poor muscle development may be a key contributing factor. Some children may also pocket food without swallowing.

The Risks Associated with Food Selectivity

Food selectivity in children with autism does not generally result in weight loss. In fact, the opposite tends to occur.

Since children with autism often prefer starchy and snack foods, individuals with autism face an increased risk of obesity and diabetes. There are also growth and development concerns when children eat a narrow variety of foods. These include poor bone growth, as well as complications associated with vitamin and mineral deficiencies. For example, research shows that levels of vitamins B1, B6, B12, A and D are often reported to be low in children with autism. Low levels of protein and calcium are also a common concern.

Researchers have also addressed the relationship between mealtime behavior problems and family stress. This is important to address for all family members, including any siblings who do not have autism. Many forms of therapy focus only on the child. However, family and parental factors can influence the immediate and long-term effects of therapy. At Carmen B. Pingree, we actively involve parents to support everyone involved.

How Are Eating Issues Treated?

If your child with autism displays rigid eating behaviors, you can take steps to make them more comfortable trying new foods. This can make mealtime more relaxing for the entire family.

When children on the autism spectrum display challenging eating behaviors, the first step is to rule out organic causes. Children with autism can experience any of the same childhood GI disorders as other kids. The difference is, children on the spectrum may not effectively verbalize what they are experiencing. From acid reflux to constipation, it’s important to rule out the most common GI issues that affect children.

If a GI disorder is not the cause, it’s important to work with a therapist that specializes in autism spectrum disorders. They will help you develop a treatment plan, offering a range of techniques for addressing mealtime behavior and selective eating. These strategies will often focus on structure and routine, as well as persistence and patience. The key is understanding why your child will not sit at the table or try new foods. It’s beneficial to keep a journal of what you feed your child and their response to better track their progress, as well as the challenges that are continuing to come up.

Improving food preference through taste exposure can be incredibly powerful and is something you can speak to with your child’s therapist. There are interventions that have been shown to be effective, even if your child has been unresponsive to this method in the past. Some children benefit from visual support, such as charts that specify what meals or snacks they will try throughout the day. A token system can also be highly effective. Others respond to stimulus fading, which involves the gradual increase of new foods through bite sizes. You may start with a pea-sized portion, working your way up to a spoonful.

Every child is different.

How Carmen B. Pingree Can Help

The Carmen B. Pingree Autism Center of Learning provides state-of-the-art intervention for children and adolescents with autism.

Using the gold standard of care, applied behavior analysis, we offer autism therapy that addresses each child’s individual needs. The Pingree Center provides training in ABA, uses Registered Behavior Technicians, and our Board Certified Behavioral Analysts provide and supervise treatment provided. At the Carmen B. Pingree Center, we focus on delivering real results that transform the lives of children and their families.

We use structured learning environments, motivational strategies, and autism therapists, as well as the collection and monitoring of data to make sure each child makes progress. Individualized plans are developed based on a child’s unique interests, abilities, strengths, and areas that require additional support. We believe it’s important for children to practice life skills throughout their development, including those surrounding food. Check out our guide to cooking for kids with autism.

Working one-on-one with children allows us to see (and help address) a wide variety of eating behaviors and food sensitivities. Our therapists will get to know your child and family, helping you create a structured plan that works for you.

Want to learn more? Please contact us today to discuss your child’s unique needs. We’re here to help!