Many children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) exhibit developmental difficulties as infants, particularly in their…
Young children must have a healthy diet to set them on the path to good nutrition for life. This is especially important for autistic children, who have an increased risk for becoming malnourished, overweight or underweight. Mealtime concerns are really common for autistic children.
Common mealtime problems in young children can include:
- Fluctuating hunger
- Picky eating
- Unwillingness to try new foods
- Strong food preferences
What needs to be done:
1. Ease into mealtime: Children who have autism experience anxiety as soon as mealtime approaches this is due to the fear of trying unfamiliar food and sensory aversion. It is advisable to ease out the child before mealtime. Spend 5 minutes with him doing a simple deep breathing exercise that is inhaling and exhaling. Bubble blowing, spinning wheel or “simple deep pressure tactile exercises” like pushing the wall can also be helpful.
2. Sit together at a table for a meal: Children learn a lot by imitating and environmental cues help them to know what they’re supposed to do. Children are wired to copy and are more likely to try an unfamiliar food seeing you do so. Make sure the child spends enough time at the dining table. Start with small intervals and then gradually increase the duration with praise and small rewards. Try to avoid habits such as eating while sitting on the lap, eating in front of the TV, or eating while using mobile phones.
3. Scheduling Meals: It is really important to schedule meals for autistic children to ensure that they are getting enough nutrition. Stick to a regular meal and snack schedule and keep mealtime consistent. This schedule typically includes 3 Meals and 2 Snacks breakfast, lunch and dinner and two to three snacks. An average meal should last between 15 and 30 minutes, but not more than 45 minutes. This ensures that the child is hungry for the next meal.
4. Ensure Food Exposure: Continue to offer new foods several times. Most children require being exposed to a new food various time before they will try or accept it. Start with only small bites or a small portion of new foods. Avoid expressing your preferences in front of your child and let him try different food items. Autistic children sometimes have fear related to the appearance and color of food. Use gradual exposure to help them learn to control and eventually get rid of these fears.
5. Make food appealing: Try to make food items attractive to ensure that the child tries to eat them. Experiment with different colors, shapes and textures. Serve food in attractive or favorite utensils, it will definitely calm down the child and motivate them to try out new food items.
6. Encourage good mealtime behaviours: Give positive reinforcements. Always appreciate your child for trying something new. Offer Praise. Be specific and say “ I liked how u tried this piece of broccoli” It will make them understand what you like and increase the chances of repetition. Reward them by giving extra time on activities that they like.
7. Concentrate on food and not on the child’s behaviour: Ignore challenging behaviour at table. Children engage themselves in spitting, banging just to avoid family meals. Don’t give any verbal or facial expression in response to their negative behaviour. Remove all attention. Divert them from negative behaviours and draw their attention towards food. Like “see how many colors are there in your plate, what shapes can u identify, is food wet or dry”.
8. Explore food textures and Give a Balanced diet: Give children food that match their texture preferences, rather than focusing on flavour preferences. Include non-preferred food with preferred food to increase the range of food that children eat. Introduce fruits, veggies and other nutritious food. Ensure that your child is eating from all 5 major food groups: Fruits, Vegetables, Grains, Dairy, Meats and Beans (or other proteins). Each of these food groups provide various macro and micronutrients necessary for growth.It’s OK if your child only eats a few foods in each food group, as long as those foods are consumed on a daily basis in a balanced way.
9. Encourage your child to explore, play and get messy with food: Children learn through play, same goes with food also. Encourage your child to explore food items through his senses. Talk about the look, smell, feel and texture of the food and let them understand it. More they interact with food, the more they accept it.
10. Reduce distractions and keep mealtime focused: Make sure that your child is comfortable while eating. Use a high chair or child sized table to ensure that the child may clearly see his food. Rule out postural discomfort. Autistic children have easy distractibility, keep distractions minimal like turn off television, keep their favourite toys aside before mealtime.
Strategies beyond Table:
- Have a Time Table: Having a proper time table keeps the children regulated throughout the day and autistic children tend to do things in a particular manner. Things that are differ from their patterns disturbs them alot. Try to make a fixed schedule for them to keep them calm and motivated throughout the day.
- Make a sleeping routine: Most autistic children have sleeping difficulties and it causes irritability. Ensure a specific sleeping schedule. Sleep should take place in a dark area with little distractions and is comfortable for the child. Sound sleep helps the child to remain calm and regulated throughout the day.
- Use Positive Role Modelling: Be a positive role model for your child. Children tend to imitate adults so it’s important to show them something positive to copy. When having a meal, eat in front of them and always say something positive about food like “Oh! I like the taste of this delicious bread in my mouth”.
Let your child touch, feel, explore the food. Let them spill it as they’re getting familiar with it. Don’t force them to put it into their mouths. Don’t make mealtimes stressful for them and for you too, rather find interesting and playful ways to let them eat food.
Be Patient and Consistent!