Getting kids to eat a well-balanced diet can be a challenge for any parent—but ensuring good nutrition for children with autism can be particularly difficult. Between sensory sensitivities, avoidance of certain tastes, smells, and textures, and a more intense need for structure and routine, making mealtime nutritious and peaceful for the entire family can feel like an overwhelming task. More importantly, problem eating behaviors can prevent children with autism from getting the nutrients they need and exacerbate their symptoms.
In the Springbrook Autism Program, we use occupational therapy and speech therapy to help children with autism overcome food aversion and learn better mealtime behavior. For example, our occupational therapists hold weekly “tasting nights” to methodically introduce kids to new flavors and textures, we bring in therapeutic tools, such as stress balls, to help our students better cope during mealtime, and we engage our students in “dirt therapy” (aka gardening) so they can see where some of their food comes from. Our in-house dietician is able to suggest healthy alternatives for our students, and our certified BCBAs work on behavior plans and reward based programs that encourage experimentation.
There are also plenty of things that parents can do at home to help their children overcome food aversions, get enough vitamins and minerals, and model proper behavior at mealtime.
At-Home Tips for Problem Eating Behaviors
Get the kids involved in the kitchen
We hold “tasting nights” and use gardening as a recreational therapy in part so that our students will be more willing to try new things. A similar approach can work for you at home. Most parents don’t have time to cook with their kids every night—but try making one night a week your meal prep night with your child. Mark the night with a food-related sticker on your visual schedule and take the time to talk about each dish, how it’s made, and what’s in it. All children are more likely to try a meal that they helped to make, and the same is true for children with ASD.
Be sure to start slow, making one of your child’s favorite meals together and then gradually branch out as your child becomes more comfortable in the kitchen. Be sure to use a cookbook with plenty of large, colorful pictures of the finished recipe for added reinforcement. You can also have your child set the table one night a week as you discuss what’s about to happen and proper mealtime etiquette. The more familiar your child becomes with different smells, flavors, and textures, as well as the social rules and rituals surrounding the dinner table, the easier mealtime will become. A bonus: chopping, mixing, and carrying dishes all count as heavy work and increase fine motor skills.
Keep mealtime quiet and calm
One of the best ways that you can help your kid on the autism spectrum reduce problem eating behaviors is to make mealtime as simple and routine as possible. Most children with ASD deal with some level of sensory processing difficulty or sensory sensitivity. Combined with a dislike for certain tastes and textures, a noisy, overly-lit dinner table can make problem eating behaviors even worse.
To make mealtime more peaceful for everyone, set the mood as you set the table. If you have a dimmer in your dining room, lower the lighting in the room. Even better, replace the bulbs in your dining room and in your child’s bedroom with full-spectrum lights. Play low, calming music as you prepare dinner and as your family eats. Finally, make it a game—to reduce the stress and the stakes, practice setting the table with your child, passing dishes, and filling water glasses when it’s not mealtime to get your child used to the expected routine. Tell social stories, using both pictures and words, to anticipate what’s going to happen at the dinner table.
Don’t be afraid to supplement
Reducing food aversions is the best way to boost your child’s nutrition. Of course, sometimes, even when you get your child more involved and invested in mealtime and you model proper mealtime behaviors, the food sensitivities don’t go away. There may be foods, or entire categories of food, that your child still refuses to touch. Parents of kids with ASD should be proactive about supplementation, working with your family’s primary doctor or a licensed nutritionist to decide which supplements will best help reduce your child’s symptoms and boost nutrition.
In addition to a high-quality multi-vitamin, some of the supplements that have been demonstrated to reduce the problem behaviors and other symptoms associated with ASD include Omega-3 fatty acids, Vitamin D, Vitamin C, Magnesium, and Vitamin B6. Many kids with autism also deal with digestive challenges due to lack of fiber intake and destruction of good gut bacteria from medication. Consider adding a good probiotic and fiber source to your child’s supplement regimen as well. The best way to discover which supplements best help reduce your child’s symptoms is to experiment with different supplements one at a time to see which have the best effects. If your child won’t swallow a pill, find a nutrient-packed liquid or gummy supplement instead.
Avoid artificial additives
While no scientific studies exist that definitively link ASD to environmental toxins or processed foods, there is a mountain of evidence that suggests that highly-refined foods and artificial additives can make the symptoms associated with autism worse. As a parent, you shouldn’t be too restrictive since the main goal with kids with ASD is to get them eating a variety of foods—but, whenever possible, choose whole, organic foods, snacks, and drinks avoiding ingredients like artificial flavorings, sweeteners, and food coloring. A bonus: crunchy snacks like apple slices, carrot sticks, and organic granola provide heavy proprioceptive input for the jaw and increase oral motor skills.
If your child needs help managing the maladaptive behaviors associated with autism, contact Springbrook at 864.834.8013 for a free, confidential consultation. Through our program, many children have been able to reduce problem behaviors and gain social and life skills.