Meal Planning for your Child with Autism

Most children go through a stage of fussy eating; however for parents with children on the autism spectrum, meal planning can be significantly more challenging.

fussy eating and autism

What is Autism?

Children with autism typically exhibit:

  •  an impaired ability to engage in social interactions;
  • a deficit of verbal and non-verbal communication;
  • and restricted, repetitive and stereotyped patterns of behaviour and interests.

This last one in particular can significantly impact on diet, as children with autism are more likely to have food sensitivities and aversions. They are often more sensitive to taste, smell, texture and appearance of food, as well as any distractions around them. This means they can be quite fussy eaters, and it is common for parents to worry about whether their child with autism is getting the right balance of nutrients to support their growth and development.

Meal Planning Tips

Meal planning can be hard, and finding the best ways is usually a matter of trial and error. Here are some strategies that might help with fussy eating behaviours in your child with autism:

  1. Keep a food diary. Keep track of everything related to what your child is eating. What (type, amount, texture, taste), where (environment, were people around? Who was around?), when (time of day), and how they reacted (did they eat it quietly? Did they dismiss it without trying?). All these will help you to get a good idea of some of the main barriers you will need to overcome.
  2. Keep mealtimes regular. Having meals at the same (or similar) time every day will help to create a familiar routine.
  3. Ask. Your child will generally have a justification why they don’t like a certain food and this will help you to understand the reasons for the aversions and sensitivities.
  4. Make small changes. If you know foods or textures that your child already likes, try giving something similar. If your child likes bread and butter, try a different spread like smooth peanut butter.
  5. Give a new food with one of your child’s favourite foods. This might help your child relate the new food to something they like.
  6. With new foods, let your child experiment and build up to eating. Start by letting them touch, smell, and bring the food to their lips, before touching it with their tongue and then tasting the food. This may be done in a day, but could also take months to get to the final step, so be patient.
  7. Eat together. Kids look to their parents, so if they see you eating foods it will help them feel more comfortable with different foods.
  8. Rewards. If your child tries something new, even if they didn’t like it or eat it, give them a reward for trying. Whether it be love and praise, a hug, a toy, or their favourite food, this will encourage your child to try something new next time.

Fussy food habits tend to peak between two and six years of age, but can continue to be a problem throughout adolescence and even adulthood. Autism is a lifelong disorder that has potentially detrimental impacts on adult functioning, and as such, it has been suggested that symptoms of fussy eating may in fact continue to persist into adulthood.

Although there is a substantial amount of literature and research on children with autism, there is a lot less available for the adult years. However, we do know that adolescents and young adults with Autism Spectrum Disorder were more likely to:

  • be fearful of eating new/unfamiliar foods;
  • dislike textured foods; and,
  • dislike strong tastes likes spices.

Nutritionally, fussy eating in adulthood can increase the risk of deficiencies and obesity in adulthood, increasing the risk of chronic conditions such as diabetes, heart disease and cancer.

The restricted diet and need for meal planning for a child or young person with autism, can result in negative social consequences. Being a fussy eater can limit outings with friends, and opportunities to advance daily living skills. Evidence has found that adolescents and young adults with ASD who report a fear of eating new or familiar foods had lower ratings of daily living skills.

Although similar strategies to those used with children to broaden eating habits may be used in adolescence and beyond, in addition therapy might target the behaviours associated with the fear of trying new foods, such as gastrointestinal problems, sensory processing impairments, anxiety or inflexible behaviours.

Working with a dietitian or nutrition such as myself can really help if you are struggling with meal planning around your fussy eater or child with autism. If you are concerned that your child could be missing out on important food groups or nutrients, you can make an appointment with me for a nutritional assessment and help with meal planning.

Ashleigh Hamilton Dietitican and Nutritionist BrisbaneAuthor: Ashleigh Hamilton, BHlthSc (Nutr & Diet), MSc (Diet), APD.

Brisbane Dietitian and Nutritionist, Ashleigh Hamilton, is passionate about a whole of body approach to health which encompasses both physical and mental aspects. She works with people to make lifestyle changes that will benefit their health for the future, using a range of counselling techniques including aspects of cognitive behavioural therapy, mindfulness and person-centred therapy.

To make an appointment with Brisbane Dietitian and Nutritionist, Ashleigh Hamilton, try Online Booking – Mt Gravatt or call Vision Psychology (Mt Gravatt) on (07) 3088 5422.

References:

  • Kuschner, Emily S., et al. “A preliminary study of self-reported food selectivity in adolescents and young adults with autism spectrum disorder.” Research in autism spectrum disorders 15 (2015): 53-59.
  • http://www.autism.org.uk/about/adult-life.aspx.
  • Rastam, M. “Eating disturbances in autism spectrum disorders with focus on adolescent and adult years.” Clinical Neuropsychiatry 5.1 (2008): 31-42.
    Sharp, William G., et al. “Feeding problems and nutrient intake in children with autism spectrum disorders: a meta-analysis and comprehensive review of the literature.” Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders 43.9 (2013): 2159-2173.
  • Marí-Bauset, Salvador, et al. “Food Selectivity in Autism Spectrum Disorders A Systematic Review.” Journal of Child Neurology (2013): 0883073813498821.