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autistic child refusing food

Autism and picky eating: What parents should know

Updated: August 11, 2023 · 8 Minute Read

Rashelle Berry, MPH, MS, RDN, LD

Reviewed by:

Rashelle Berry, MPH, MS, RDN, LD

Highlights

  • Almost all parents of children with autism report some form of eating concern like food selectivity, rapid eating, chewing problems, food stealing, vomiting, etc.
  • If you have a selective eater, see your pediatrician to rule out a possible nutritional deficiency and/or underlying medical causes of your child’s eating issues
  • Autistic children need extra time to visually explore, smell, and touch their food before tasting it
  • Autism feeding therapy can be offered through a number of different types of providers including speech and language pathologists, occupational therapists, behavioral therapists, and nutritionists
  • Applied behavior analysis (ABA) is a type of behavior therapy that will aim to improve behaviors with mealtimes and increase dietary variety and decrease unwanted behaviors such as food refusal

What kind of mealtime issues are common?

  • “All children go through a picky eating phase, it’s not a big deal.”
  • “You just have to show them who is in charge at mealtime — at our house, no one leaves the table until their plate is clean.”
  • “I understand your frustration, my child is also sooo picky and never wants to eat their vegetables.”

 

It isn’t you.

So… most parents say their kids are reluctant to try new foods. What’s the difference between common pickiness and more selective eating?

 

Supporting Your Selective-Eater

SightAutistic children spend more time looking at their food.

Smell: How a food smells matters a lot to your child.

Touch: Autistic kids tend to be more sensitive to objects and textures.

Phrases that Help and Hinder Your Selective-Eater

 

Professional Care

Feeding Therapy

  • Trouble feeding oneself
  • Food aversions
  • Poor posture and/or body control
  • Sensory and texture issues

 

Next Steps

Dive Deeper

Article References

  1. Mayes SD, Zickgraf H: Atypical eating behaviors in children and adolescents with autism, ADHD, other disorders, and typical development. Res Autism Spectr Disord 2019, 64:76–83.
  2. Leader G, Tuohy E, Chen JL, Mannion A, Gilroy SP. Feeding Problems, Gastrointestinal Symptoms, Challenging Behavior and Sensory Issues in Children and Adolescents with Autism Spectrum Disorder. J Autism Dev Disord. 2020;50(4):1401–1410. doi:10.1007/s10803–019–04357–7
  3. Nadon G, Feldman DE, Dunn W, Gisel E. Mealtime problems in children with Autism Spectrum Disorder and their typically developing siblings: A comparison study. Autism. 2011;15(1):98–113. doi:10.1177/1362361309348943
  4. Williams K, Seiverling L. Broccoli Boot Camp: Basic Training For Parents Of Selective Eaters. Bethesda: Woodbine House; 2019:1–15.
  5. When does autism-related picky eating cross the line to feeding disorder? Autism Speaks. https://www.autismspeaks.org/expert-opinion/when-does-autism-related-picky-eating-cross-line-feeding-disorder. Accessed March 23, 2022.
  6. Petitpierre G, Luisier A-C, Bensafi M. Eating behavior in autism: Senses as a window towards food acceptance. Current Opinion in Food Science. 2021;41:210–216. doi:10.1016/j.cofs.2021.04.015
  7. Rozenkrantz L, Zachor D, Heller I et al. A Mechanistic Link between Olfaction and Autism Spectrum Disorder. Current Biology. 2015;25(14):1904–1910. doi:10.1016/j.cub.2015.05.048
  8. Ayers AJ. Tactile functions. Their relation to hyperactive and perceptual motor behavior. Occupational Therapy: the Official Journal of the Association of Occupational Therapists. 1964;27(11):2–2. doi:10.1177/030802266402701103
  9. Huxham L, Marais M, van Niekerk E. Idiosyncratic food preferences of children with autism spectrum disorder in England. South African Journal of Clinical Nutrition. 2019;34(3):90–96. doi:10.1080/16070658.2019.1697039
  10. Phrases That Help and Hinder. Hungerandhealth.feedingamerica.org. http://hungerandhealth.feedingamerica.org/wp-content/uploads/legacy/mp/files/tool_and_resources/files/phrases-that-help-and-hinder.pdf. Published 2022. Accessed March 14, 2022.
  11. Williams PG, Dalrymple N, Neal J. Eating habits of children with autism. Pediatr Nurs. 2000;26(3):259–264.
  12. Diolordi L, del Balzo V, Bernabei P, Vitiello V, Donini L. Eating habits and dietary patterns in children with autism. Eating and Weight Disorders — Studies on Anorexia, Bulimia and Obesity. 2014;19(3):295–301. doi:10.1007/s40519–014–0137–0
  13. Marı ́-Bauset S, Zazpe I, Mari-Sanchis A, Llopis-Gonza ́ lez A, Morales-Sua ́ rez-Varela M: Food selectivity in autism spectrum disorders: a systematic review. J Child Neurol 2014, 29:1554- 1561.
  14. Eating Habits: When to Worry | Marcus Autism Center. Marcus Autism Center. https://www.marcus.org/autism-resources/autism-tips-and-resources/eating-habits-when-to-worry. Published 2022. Accessed March 15, 2022.
  15. Mayes S, Zickgraf H. Atypical eating behaviors in children and adolescents with autism, ADHD, other disorders, and typical development. Res Autism Spectr Disord. 2019;64:76–83. doi:10.1016/j.rasd.2019.04.002