Expert tips by Jan Jones (Early Childhood Educator)
This article focuses on fussy eating in Autistic children, however many of the techniques mentioned will work with neurotypical children as well.
Most toddlers and young children are fussy eaters. Their food preferences vary greatly and many become very resistant to particular foods. Some children eat small amounts through the day rather than at meal times, others will eat a very small range of foods but their growth and development continues normally. Young children often eat less from about 18 months to 3 years than they did earlier as their rate of growth slows down.
For the majority of children these food patterns change into what are described as “normal eating habits” as they mature. Children with autism frequently have problems with eating including:
- Eating a limited range of foods
- Selective eating e.g. only foods without lumps, only white foods or rejecting all red food
- Food refusal
Families often describe the behaviour related to eating as causing the problems; such as:
- Not wanting to sit for meals (no social eating experiences)
- Sniffing and inspecting food (their own and others)
- Taking food from others’ plates
- Gorging food, hoarding food in their mouth
- Gagging on food or vomiting food they don’t like
- Obsessive placing of food on their plates e.g.no different types of food touching
- Specific cutlery, crockery or position at table
- Eating only using fingers
- Refusal of new foods
In people with autism, these eating difficulties often continue into adolescence and adulthood.
Making sense of eating problems
A medical examination should be made of any child with persistent eating difficulties. This is to identify any allergies or intolerances, as well as digestive or chewing or swallowing problems. At this check-up and assessment should also be made to assess whether the child’s nutrition includes essential food groups, vitamins and minerals.
The majority of children with autism also have problems with development. This may mean that a 4 year old has the eating skills, habits and behaviour of a 2 year old and should not therefore be expected too manage cutlery. The child may find the social experience of eating and chatting at a table particularly distressing when they do not have the social skills to participate. In this case, it may be preferable if the child can eat alone to avoid the overwhelming social situation.
The preference for particular foods may relate to the child’s behaviour in other areas such as repetitive behaviours of lining up or collecting, or aversion to certain textures. Resistance to change in routine is often encountered in children with autism so when you think about this in relation to food, it may account for the child wanting to continually eat the same thing.
What can you do?
- Have a check-up to detect any underlying medical problem.
- Does the child have social difficulties which may relate to the eating problem?
- Does the child display obsessive behaviour related to food?
- Does the child’s sensitivity to new food relate to other sensory difficulties e.g. texture, colour?
If your child is receiving support for their autism spectrum disorder, consult the professionals involved to gain their support for this area of difficulty.
The following ideas may help and they are useful to try for all “fussy eaters”:
- Limit junk food and drink to make more room for healthier alternatives.
- Put small amounts of food on plate and offer more when it is finished.
- Make food attractive (try different shapes, colours).
- Offer new food early in day (not when child is tired or already full).
- Offer different/new food when child is hungry/thirsty
- Involve child in food preparation if possible.
- Grind vitamin and calcium supplements (if required) finely, then add to food child likes (e.g. can mix into vegemite or peanut butter).
- Blend cooked vegetables and add to other ingredients e.g. Bolognese sauce or meat patties.
- Have a preferred toy at hand so it is played with rather than the food itself.
To bring about any change you need to:
– Be persistent and patient.
– Be consistent (set time for meals).
– Have a routine (always sit at table to eat).
– Always offer a non-preferred food at each meal alongside what your child prefers to eat
– Make gradual changes to taste, texture, flavour, smell and quantity of food.
– Social stories about food and mealtimes may be helpful.
The following is highly unlikely to work if you want to change your child’s eating and behaviour:
– Ignoring the behaviour won’t make it go away.
– Coaxing and pleading for your child to eat won’t work.
– Threats and punishments usually make things worse.
– Force feeding may result in total refusal
– Always making a separate meal or multiple meals for your child will probably result in the child holding out for the preferred food.
What have you found has helped your fussy eater, comment below