Caring for a child with ASD can be challenging on many levels, and healthy eating is no exception. Children with ASD may often have narrow, restricted interests which can affect eating habits and food choices. This can look like sensitivity to the taste, smell, color and texture of foods, limited food selection or strong food dislikes, and avoidance of some foods and even whole food groups. Creating a nutritious, balanced eating plan is the ultimate goal, but may not come without roadblocks along the way. Below are some things that can assist in every parent’s struggle on delivering a well-balanced diet for their child.
Make Meal Time Routines
Having the same mealtime routine every day is very beneficial for a child’s daily routine. They learn what to expect and can imitate healthy behaviors of other individuals around the table. Environmental cues help all children and by sitting down together as a family each day for meals, you can create a safe space for your child to learn and explore new foods to broaden their horizons.
Encourage Your Child to Play with New Food
Yes, you heard that correctly. Allow your child to play with their food. This is a great way to expand on exposure to new food groups that may have different textures, taste, color, etc. Individuals with ASD usually have a sensory processing disorder, preventing them from wanting to expand upon foods that may “feel weird”. If a child begins to play with a new food item, it is their way of getting used to the new textures and then it soon becomes a familiar item, if offered frequently.
Allowing a child to gradually play with new food items, gives them an opportunity for more exposure to healthier options. You can offer a piece of fruit on a plate and allow for self-exploration. We can guide a child to do this in a very gradual manner. One day we may have the child name the color of the piece of fruit and acknowledge that it is there. The next day have them touch it. The following day, they can “kiss” the fruit, next day, bite the fruit, and then ultimately eating a piece of fruit. The process can be either slower or faster than this depending on what preferences they may have and the difficulty of desensitizing to the specific item.
Work with a Dietician
Children with ASD are at risk for nutrition deficits due to their selection of food. Restrictive diets (such a gluten-free or ketogenic diets) require careful planning to make sure your child’s nutrition needs are being met. Consult with a registered dietitian and physician before making any drastic changes to your child’s meal plan as there can be side effects and potential nutrient deficiencies.
Broadening your child’s diet can be a challenging task but with support and tips, it is achievable!
- Serve meals at the same time every day. Consistency is key!
- Let your child pick a favorite food to include at every meal.
- Let your child choose a favorite seat at the table.
- Make the kitchen table a safe space for new food exploration
Ashley Smith, BSN, RN
Nurse, The Rich Center for Autism at YSU