Tips For Picky Eating For Children With Autism

We’ve all known a child who is a picky eater, but what does this look like for children with autism? Children with autism are 5 times more likely than their peers to develop challenges surrounding eating which can impact their daily nutritional values, potentially leading to sleep disruption, mood fluctuation, and challenging behaviours. Some common reasons for eating challenges with children with autism include:

  • Sensory challenges: Some children with autism find certain textures averse, and this can limit what kinds of food they will eat. 
  • Insistence of sameness: it is common for children with autism to prefer processed and pre-packaged foods because these items are manufactured to be consistent and the same every time. Even something as simple as a grilled cheese can be different from one sandwich to the next depending on the amount and type of cheese or bread choice. This challenge is particularly relevant with fruits and vegetables where shape, size, and ripeness cannot be controlled and will vary from piece to piece.
  • Postural deficits or low muscle tone: It is estimated that 30% of children with autism have low muscle tone which can make it challenging to sit upright for a meal, however sitting upright is ideal for eating to avoid choking hazards.


Thankfully, there are ways to encourage children with autism to try new foods and expand their palette to ensure they are getting the nutrition that they need. 

  1. Make mealtime fun and engaging, and avoid pressuring children to eat: Putting pressure on children to eat foods that they are averse to can cause stress and anxiety around mealtime. This will decrease their likelihood of trying new foods on their own, and can cause mealtime as a whole to become apprehensive. 
  2. Offering small quantities of new foods alongside preferred foods: Pairing a new food with a familiar food can decrease anxiety by allowing your child to have the choice to eat the preferred food, and explore the new food if they so choose. Praise them for any attempts towards the new food such as touching it to let your child know that the food is safe and yummy. 
  3. Let your child know what to expect: New foods come with uncertainty; is it going to be crunchy or soft? Wet or dry? Sweet or salty? Eat the food in front of them and tell them how it tastes and feels. Some examples of this may be, “wow, carrots are so crunchy, I like the noise they make” or “yum, the tomato soup is warm and smooth”. 
  4. Movement prior to eating: If your child suffers from low muscle tone or fine motor deficits, light movement before eating can warm up the muscles involved in sitting upright and using utensils. Some fun examples of gross motor movements include crab walking, jumping, and throwing a ball, or finger painting and pulling Lego pieces apart for fine motor skills.

Implementing and utilizing these simple additions to mealtime can positively impact the range of foods your child may eat. A balanced diet of a variety of foods will ensure your child is getting the nutrition they need, can improve autism symptom severity, and decrease the likelihood of challenging behaviours. At the end of the day, it is important to remember that your child eating something is better than your child eating nothing. Be patient, encouraging, and understanding when attempting to introduce new food and take pride in the small steps that your child may take.

Written by:  Paige Moon, ABA Therapist, Momentum Autism Services

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