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Healthy eating

Many children with autism are selective about what they eat or how they eat it. Children with autism may be more likely to stick with what they are most familiar with. This can be because they become obsessed with a particular food, plate or routine.

They may also avoid new foods because they find all new experiences difficult to cope with or refuse some meals because they want something that they feel in control of. For a child who finds communication difficult, refusing to eat something can be a way of communicating stress or anxiety about something else.

Also, many children with autism experience taste, smell or texture differently. This can be a further reason for finding some foods difficult to accept. Some children eat a limited diet because of their strong desire for sameness; this gives them a sense of safety and calm.

It can be upsetting and tiring to watch your child refusing to eat or to try new foods. This can be a complex issue to unravel and you may need to seek expert help. What we do know is that when an individual is anxious, one of the first things that happens is their digestive system slows down (butterflies in your stomach - fight or flight). If your child is a selective eater, the aim is to work towards creating a calm, happy setting so they will be more willing to try new foods. You should not force them to eat and should allow them access to foods that they will eat.

The usual approaches to selective eating may not work. If you think your child is an extreme selective eater ask your GP or health worker for help and advice. They may be able to refer you to your local dietician or feeding clinic (if available), who can assess your child’s diet, check that it is nutritionally balanced and give you practical hints, tips and support.

Why children with ASD can be selective eaters is not clearly understood but there are factors to consider: 

Sensory issues and food

Children with ASD often have sensory issues and so food may not smell, taste or feel the same as it does to us. These issues may extend to memory anxiety - e.g. remembering an event / person when a particular food was eaten and that thought being so strong that it interferes with eating that food now.

‘Every time you ask me to try an apple I remember back to when I had a bad tummy, and I had an apple and was sick. When I have the fruit in my mouth my memory is so strong I can taste, feel, and smell the memory of the sick, and I can’t taste the apple… that’s why I won’t try it.’ (Individual with ASD).

What about the environment?

 Is the environment putting them off eating? Bright lights, noisy children, sitting opposite messy eaters could be some of the reasons they are finding eating new foods difficult. ‘I need to eat on my own because I can’t block out the way other children eat, they eat with their mouths open, the food is falling out, they are picking their noses and it puts me off eating.’ (Individual with ASD).

Is something else going on?

Sometimes children refuse to eat because of an underlying medical problem that may be making eating hard -  sore mouth, painful teeth, constipation, and find it harder to verbalise or show you this. Your GP may be able to refer you to the appropriate health professional.

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