By Sade Meeks, MS, RD
World Autism Day is celebrated internationally every year on April 2 in order to raise awareness about how autism impacts individuals similarly and differently throughout the world. Autism Spectrum Disorders are complex and for some individuals and families, it can make feeding time complex as well. Children with autism are at an increased risk for having certain food aversions and sensitivities, which may sometimes mistakenly be referred to as picky eating. These behaviors typically go way beyond preference, because of one’s health condition and food sensitives. Some children may also have autism related GI issues. Having a child with Autism can make mealtimes more of a challenge and also add a concern for parents and caregivers as they may wonder if their child is getting the proper nutrients. Here we hope we can lessen some of these concerns by sharing a few strategies for managing mealtimes.
Occupational therapist, Moira Pen provides great insight on how to manage certain mealtime challenges, see summary below.
- Rule out physical problems: It’s important to rule out any medical drivers or food allergies that could be causing a dislike of flavors or food groups.
- Ease into mealtime: Many children with autism dislike trying new things. In psychology, this is called neophobia. If a child seems afraid or apprehensive of new foods, think of ways to manage this anxiety.
- Sit together at a table for meals: Eating together helps establish routine and lessen distractions.
- Support your child’s posture: Support your child physical needs during mealtimes, whether that’s placing a pillow behind their back for extra support or placing a step stool beneath their feet.
- Build acceptance to new foods through gradual exposure: Have your child involved in picking out ingredients and cooking with ingredients to increase one’s comfort level.
- Have set times for meals and stick to them: Once again structure is important, having set meal and snack times also helps regulate hunger and fullness.
- Expand what your child already eats: This is similar to the concept of bridging mentioned in an earlier article.
- Take food out of their brand boxes or containers: Little ones love Messy Monkeys’ packaging, however, If your child can get fixated on labels, it may help to present foods in clear containers.
- Encourage your child to explore, play and get messy with food: Messy Monkey’s no stranger to getting a little messy. Children learn better when they play, and food can be part of that learning experience. It also increases their exposure to food without so much anxiety.
- Concentrate on the food, not your child’s behavior: Try to divert the attention from the behaviors, to the food. Use mealtime as a moment to smell, taste, and engage your child in the experience of eating.