Helping Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder Avoid Mealtime Stress

CME WebsitesChild Development, Child Routines, Mealtime, Special Needs Diagnoses

Many children experience mealtime problems at some point, including inconsistent appetite, pickiness, fear of new foods, clumsiness with self-feeding, or difficulty sitting still. These challenges are often more pronounced in children with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD).

In addition to the social and communication impairments that characterize ASD, there may be difficulties with sensory processing, motor skills, attention, and behavior. For a child with sensory processing disorder, the sounds, smells, and sights of food preparation and the mealtime routine may be overwhelming. Consider giving your child advance warning that dinner preparation is about to begin, distract him with a highly-preferred activity (e.g. a favorite video), or enlist his help in the kitchen or with setting the table to offer a sense of control over the proceedings.

Many children with ASD have impaired gross and fine motor skills and coordination. Parents may find it helpful to relax behavioral expectations at meals and ignore fidgeting by allowing the child to sit on a pillow or prop her chin on her hand. If utensil use is difficult, allowing the child to finger-feed or be fed by a caregiver may help reduce stress at meals.

Parents of children with ASD are often frustrated with the limited variety of foods their children will accept. Food preferences may be restricted to specific textures, colors, or flavors. When offering new foods, do so gradually as a snack to avoid mealtime angst. Praise the child’s willingness to explore the food and give permission for her to spit it out if she is not comfortable chewing or swallowing it.

There are many possible reasons for mealtime challenges in children with ASD. Parents may want to consult with their pediatrician to determine if an evaluation by an occupational therapist or other feeding specialist would be beneficial. These professionals begin by identifying the underlying problems and then develop a plan to help address them. With the right approach, the family can learn to help their child with ASD feel more comfortable trying new foods, demonstrate improved mealtime behaviors, and attain optimal nutrition and growth.