By Kelley Yost Abrams, PhD

About the Author: Dr. Yost Abrams received her PhD from the University of California, Berkeley and is a fellow with ZERO TO THREE. She is a parenting expert and early childhood researcher. Dr. Abrams specializes in parent-child attachment relationships, social-emotional development, and infant mental health.

Autism And Eating Habits: Tips For Choosing Healthy Snacks, Meals, and More

Did you know that autism spectrum disorder (ASD) can impact how and what your child eats? If you have noticed your child’s eating habits deviating from previous behaviors, you can seek an evaluation. On the other hand, perhaps your child has already been diagnosed with ASD. In this case, consider familiarizing yourself with the connection between autism and eating habits. 

What Your Child May Experience As They Eat

According to the National Library of Medicine, people diagnosed with autism are five times more likely to experience issues with eating. Often, children with ASD use restrictive eating as a way to cope with anxiety and sensory needs, so they may avoid foods of a certain color, texture, or temperature, even long into adulthood.

Furthermore, they can experience additional challenges during mealtime, including reactions from medication or tantrums from using certain utensils or sitting for too long. A child may even refuse to eat entirely for unknown reasons, stowing away the food in their cheeks or in their pockets. To overcome these obstacles, you may need assistance, and we have a couple ideas to get you started.

Please note that our thoughts are suggestions and not medical advice. As such, these should merely act as a starting point for further action. Always consult with your family’s trusted healthcare provider prior to making dietary and lifestyle changes.

Strategies For Autism and Eating Habits

Although you may feel tempted to only provide the things your child prefers–like ice cream or pizza, for example–it is important to expose them to a wide variety of foods and food brands. The key here is to gradually introduce each type of food to your child instead of adding in new foods all at once. 

As stated before, you could also consider partnering with a nutritionist or your child’s pediatrician to create the most suitable plan. By working with a trusted medical professional, and by introducing a diverse range of foods to your child, you can supply him or her with enough to eat and strive to prevent nutritional deficiencies, stunted growth, and weight loss. 

It may be a good idea to keep a food diary, too. This can make it easier to identify patterns in your child’s eating behaviors. Remember to note specific foods and distinct reactions to each. Additionally, remember to consider your child’s mealtime experiences. For instance, children with ASD are receptive to routine, so schedule meals around the same time every day. Keep your kitchen’s overall environment consistent, too; offer them the seat where they would typically sit, provide them with a chair cushion, and dim the lights to create a soothing atmosphere. If your child mostly has trouble with sitting, you could try shortening the time they’re at the table and slowly adding time as they grow more comfortable.

Another idea could be involving your child in preparing food with you, which may help decrease anxiety surrounding meals and snacks. Lastly, if you and your child have specific rituals before or after mealtime, such as a relaxing bath or a good book, consider keeping those within the schedule as well.

Now that you have a better understanding of autism and eating habits, you may be wondering about what foods to avoid with autism.

Foods To Consider Avoiding With Autism

For children with autism, a key solution in managing symptoms is setting your child up for success. If the goal is to introduce fewer processed foods into their diet, keep in mind that there are some foods and food groups that may trigger sensitivities. Remember the following foods as you plan with your child, especially if they have allergies or other medical conditions that accompany ASD. Like we stated previously, be sure to consult with your child’s medical doctors before changing their diet.

In addition to foods to consider avoiding or reducing with autism, parents may also want to avoid introducing new foods too quickly to their child’s diet and create a ritual of fun around trying a food for the first time. Parents can also incorporate new foods that are similar to foods that their children already eat. For instance, if your child enjoys salty snacks like french fries or chips, parents can try introducing lightly salted plantains at meal time. Each small improvement can have a big impact in the long run. 

Great Food Ideas For Children With Autism

Above all, everyone requires fresh foods containing essential vitamins and minerals. Some ideas of foods you can provide your child are:

  • Beans, such as black beans, garbanzo beans, navy beans, and pinto beans
  • Fruits, such as
  • Mangoes
  • Melons
  • Oranges
  • Vegetables, such as
  • Broccoli
  • Brussels sprouts
  • Carrots
  • Cauliflower
  • Leafy greens, such as arugula, kale, and spinach
  • Lean meats, such as beef, chicken, and turkey 
  • Fish, especially species that are high in omega-3, such as mackerel, salmon, and trout
  • Consider limiting tuna due to its mercury content
  • Nuts, such as almonds, cashews, and walnuts
  • You can also serve your child peanuts if they do not have an allergy
  • Seeds, such as chia seeds, flax seeds, hemp seeds, and sunflower seeds
  • Whole grains, such as brown rice, oats, and quinoa

Other delicious and popular options are:

  • Butternut squash
  • Lentils
  • Mushrooms
  • Pumpkin
  • Tomatoes

You may be asking yourself, “What is the best diet for autism?”. As you can see, there is not one specific or strict diet for children with autism. In fact, luckily, there are several foods to select from in each category. Naturally, every child’s tastes are going to be different, and it is okay if your child gravitates towards certain foods in each category–especially at first.

Benefits of Prioritizing Your Child’s Nutrition

There are numerous advantages that come with focusing on your child’s nutrition, especially when they have autism. First, of course, when you have these foods on hand, you ensure your child can choose from multiple filling and nutritious meals. Additionally, your child receives the dietary benefits that include (but are not limited to):

  • Calcium
  • A mineral that is vital for growing bones
  • Fiber
  • A nutrient that can improve gut health and prevent uncomfortable constipation, diarrhea, and stomach pain
  • Protein
  • A macronutrient that can promote fullness and strong muscles
  • Zinc

As a bonus, healthy eating boosts brain health, which will aid your child in academic performance and social settings. Simply put, your commitment to your child’s healthy diet will contribute to their success as they age.

We hope our insight can help you as you navigate your child’s eating habits. At the end of the day, encouragement and persistence will go a long way in ensuring your child eats regularly and healthfully. They may resist at first, but remember to praise your child when they do show positive behaviors. Patience is also imperative; we understand parents may feel frustrated, but no doubt, your child will feel more comfortable and empowered along the way.

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