By Robin Suzelis, Director, ASMV

Photo Caption: Robin and her boys this past summer at a restaurant on vacation.

All parents have stories about their children’s quirky eating habits at different stages of their lives. However, those affected by autism can take picky eating to an entirely new level. In addition, left unchecked, these children’s or adults’ sensory issues related to foods can also become behaviorally challenging.

Our 16-year-old Evan has always been a picky eater. I always said he stopped adding food options when he was in preschool. We knew he was choosy, but we also didn’t know what we could do to help him. Around age 4, he also started getting more difficult behaviorally, so we didn’t want to cause more difficult behavior over food. This meant we gave in and let him eat the same few foods over and over.

As a family, we worked hard to eat healthily, so we fed Evan nutritional kid food options that were natural, dye-free, gluten-free, etc. It was good that he was eating healthy foods, but it wasn’t good that he was eating such a limited variety. So, as he grew into a tall teenager, we kept adding more of the same foods to try to fill him up and keep his nutrition up.

As the years went by, Evan started doing much better behaviorally. With his growth cognitively and verbally, we wanted to try food therapy. So during the COVID shutdown, we started in-home ABA therapy. It was a long and challenging process, but he gradually began accepting new foods.

This past year was our best year ever for adding foods to his diet! Now Evan is not only eating many more foods but is being more flexible with those foods. For example, he always ate pizza, but only his particular pizza brand. Now we can go to a local pizza place, and he’ll eat gluten-free pizza, or head out to our favorite burger joint and eat a burger on a gluten-free bun! It has been life-changing for our family!

I know we were not alone in this challenge. For example, a recent review of scientific studies found that children with autism are five times more likely to have mealtime challenges. These include extremely narrow food selections, ritualistic eating behaviors (e.g., no foods can touch), and meal-related tantrums. However, this research also suggests that it’s usually a temporary part of development.

I want to encourage you to focus on food by offering lots of different healthy foods to your children, regardless of age, even when it’s tough to not give in. Here are a few expert tips from psychologist Emily Kuschner, Ph.D., of the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, to get started:

Take tasting in steps

New things can be overwhelming. Help your child explore an unknown food by looking at it, touching it, and smelling it. Then, when he’s ready for a taste, he can try giving the food “a kiss” or licking it before putting a full bite into his mouth. Sometimes, mixing a new food with a favorite one can help.

Play with new food

Playing with a portion of new food is another way to build familiarity and decrease mealtime anxiety. Together, try painting with pasta sauce. Use veggies to make faces on pizza. Use cookie cutters to cut sandwiches into fun shapes. While you’re playing, let your child see you taste — and enjoy — the food.

Offer choices and control

Your loved one may need to feel some control over what she puts into her mouth. It’s also okay to simply not like some foods. So try to offer a wide variety and allow choices within the categories you care about. For example, you might decide that your child needs one serving of vegetables and one protein for dinner. Try putting five types of these foods on the table and allow your child to choose at least one of each. Along the same lines, if you’re making a favorite dish, such as pasta, ask your child to add one mystery ingredient for other family members to discover during the meal. She gets to choose: corn, broccoli, or chicken. (Learn more in her article here)

Remember, there is a time for everything, and it’s okay to bring in support through food/feeding therapy through a trusted behavioral, occupational, or speech therapist.

We could have just given up on food, but we didn’t. Now Evan has healthier choices, and our family has the flexibility to go to more restaurants, go on more outings, and have more vacations. This means a better life for all of us.