Autism and Selective Eating: How to Help Your Kid Expand Their Diet

Autism is, reassuringly, becoming better understood as time passes, and it’s not uncommon now for even people who don’t live with an autistic person or have the condition themselves to know a bit about it. In some areas, there are multiple shops and salons that have specific autism-friendly periods where lights are dimmed, music is muted and the excessive stimulation that exists in so much of modern society are reduced for a time.

Yet it would probably come as a surprise to many people to know that autism has a pronounced effect on the diet of many people who have the condition. Particularly in childhood, this can lead to physical and mental health issues, and so it is beneficial if you can find ways to deal with the obstacles that autism places in front of a child when it comes to getting the right nutrition. Below, let’s look at how autism can effect a child’s eating patterns, and how selective eating can be mitigated.


Why do kids with autism struggle with food?

There is no single reason why someone with autism would have problems with food; more accurately, we can say some of the impacts of autism affect how, when, and what a child will eat. We know that, more than the average child, a child who is further along the autism spectrum will be bound by habit. So if they are used to eating at 4pm, and food is served at 3:20, that can be triggering for a child. Equally, the highly pattern-based nature of behavior can mean that a child who really enjoys lasagna one day will want it the next day and every day thereafter, reacting with despair to other foods even if they are very similar.


How can you help a child diversify their diet?

There is a certain logic-based way that people with autism think, and it helps explain why they are often selective eaters. If they enjoyed fried chicken yesterday, they’ll want it again today because they know they like it. They may be resistant to trying other things, but this very logic can help overturn some of the more damaging thinking. If you have the best taco dip recipe and want them to try it, you can point out that there are a lot of nutrients in the dip, including plenty of protein which will give them energy and stop them feeling over-tired. If they have more energy, they’ll be able to do more of the things they like, which is always good.


selective eating
Image by congerdesign from Pixabay


What should you avoid?

Although logic is very present in most autistic children, you should avoid using that fact to present some foods as a reward for eating others. Although it seems like a logical pay-off – “Eat all your cauliflower and you can have some ice cream” is something a lot of us heard as children ourselves – it does risk creating negative associations. Ice cream should not be seen as a food they will be rewarded with if they eat another food. Cauliflower should not be seen as a chore they need to finish in order to “win” something they like. 

Ideally, you want them to want to eat cauliflower and this is often best achieved by modeling; if you as parents, and their siblings too, all eat your cauliflower and make a show of enjoying it, an autistic kid will see that behavior and want to match it. Don’t do this in an exaggerated way, rubbing your bellies and smiling broadly; just a few words like “good job on the cauliflower, Mom/Dad/name, you got it just the right texture” will provide a good example around the dinner table.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.