Autism and Eating Problems: Is Your Child Refusing to Eat?

autism and eating problems, is your child refusing to eat, aba therapy clinic, houston, tx

by | Nov 10, 2023 | Autism

Children with autism are five times more likely to have eating problems than neurotypical children.  Feeding problems may include food selectivity, unhealthy eating habits, or mealtime behavior issues.  

Autism Spectrum Disorder and Poor Eating Behaviors

Eating problems in children with autism can develop into health issues.  Selective or picky eating typically involves a preference for processed foods that are high in carbohydrates combined with avoidance of fruit and vegetables.  Children with autism also tend to have a lower intake of calcium and protein in their diets.  These limitations in the food they consume may result in poor bone growth, constipation, vitamin and mineral deficiencies, obesity, diabetes, and other preventable diet-related diseases in autistic children.  

Understanding Food Selectivity in Children with Autism

1) Determine the Cause of Feeding Issues

If your child with autism has eating problems or is refusing to eat, the first step is to determine whether the cause may be a medical issue.  Causes of eating issues could include food allergies, constipation, gastroesophageal reflux (GERD), or even problems with oral-motor skills that affect the ability to chew food.  Your child’s pediatrician, a pediatric gastroenterologist, or other specialists should be able to determine whether any of these are issues for your child.  

2) Practice Good Eating Behaviors

Once medical causes have been ruled out, there are several steps families can take to help their children with feeding issues. Here are some ideas from our experts:

  • Keep a regular mealtime schedule with three meals daily and two snacks.  Try to limit your child to water only in between meal and snack times.
  • Limit mealtimes to 15 – 30 minutes at most.  If your child cannot tolerate 15 minutes, then start with what they can tolerate and work up.  
  • Have all meals and snacks in the same location at home and make sure that your child’s chair or high chair is comfortable for them.  If your child is attending Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) therapy or school then they will similarly have their meals and snacks in the same location at the ABA therapy center or school.  
  • Be a good role model.  Eat a good variety of foods yourself and talk positively about the food that is in front of you and your child.   
  • Eliminate distractions during eating, such as television or electronic devices. 
  • Do not allow your child to stand or walk during meals.  If they are not willing to sit at the table for long periods, just start with however much time they are willing to sit. It could be as little as 30 seconds.  
  • Prioritize your goals, and don’t try to tackle everything at once.  What is the most important?  Is it the amount of food that your child is eating, the diversity of foods, or reducing behavioral issues?  Try to focus on the most important goal first.
  • Start small and be patient.  Most children need to be exposed to a new food 15 – 20 times before they will try it or start to eat it regularly.  When trying a new food, try small bites, even so small that your child cannot taste it, and give lots of praise when the child eats it.  You can also pair the new food with a preferred food.  
  • If your child has been successful with the goal that you have planned, such as eating a specific amount of food for the first time, don’t push it.  Give lots of praise for each step and try a little more each time.  If you push your child too far beyond the intended goal for that meal a success can quickly turn into a failure.  
  • Ignore problem behaviors.  Unless your child’s behaviors are a safety concern, try to ignore behavior issues.  Paying attention to your child’s behavior issues may give the child a temporary or extended escape from eating.  If it works once for your child, they will try it again.  
  • Keep records both of food eaten and restroom habits.  Document how much of each food is eaten at each meal so that you can monitor progress, see issues, and have information for your child’s pediatrician if needed.  Documenting restroom visits is also important as this will help you to identify whether your child is having any gastrointestinal issues.    

3) Stay Consistent with Your Child’s Diet

Once your child’s eating problems have been determined not to be medical, eating issues can be addressed with prioritization, planning, patience, and lots of praise.  Just remember that it takes 15 – 20 tries to convince a child to eat a new food.  It may take time, but the positive impact that resolving eating issues will have on your child’s long-term health makes it all worthwhile.  

We’re Here to Help Your Child with Autism

By staying consistent with your child’s diet and following the steps we discussed, you can help them overcome their eating challenges. If you need further guidance or assistance, please don’t hesitate to contact our ABA therapy clinic. We’re here to support you and your child’s journey towards better health and well-being.

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