Feeding concerns are common for children with autism. In fact, children with autism are five times more likely than their peers to develop a feeding problem. However, it can be difficult to tell whether a child’s eating habits are normal or require intervention.
Read on to learn more about feeding issues associated with autism and what steps you need to take to ensure that your child is getting appropriate nutrition and help with eating.
Identifying a feeding problem
Mealtime problems are common in young children and can include:
- Fluctuating hunger
- Picky eating
- Unwillingness to try new foods
- Strong food preferences
Even though picky eating is a common problem, research suggests that it’s usually a temporary and normal part of development. However, children with autism often have more chronic feeding problems that go beyond picky eating. This may mean the child won’t eat an entire category of food such as proteins or vegetables. Or it may mean that a child exhibits intense problem behaviors when offered foods they don’t like.
Types of feeding problems associated with autism
The feeding concern most commonly observed in children with autism is food selectivity, or eating a limited variety of foods. This most often involves preference for starches and snack foods and more frequent rejection of fruits and vegetables. Children with autism are also more likely to engage in problem behaviors such as crying, disruption and leaving the table during meals.
Impact on family life
Parents of children who have autism and feeding problems may change their daily routines and schedules to accommodate their child’s mealtime issues. This includes packing a child’s preferred foods to take to restaurants or family gatherings. In some cases, families may avoid activities involving food altogether. Parents of children with autism and feeding problems may also experience increased stress or a strained relationship with their partner due to concerns surrounding their child’s mealtime behaviors.
Risks associated with food selectivity
Food selectivity in children with autism doesn’t frequently result in weight loss or poor growth. In fact, selective eating patterns involving preferences for starches and snack foods may increase the risk for obesity, diabetes and cardiovascular disease in adolescence and adulthood. In addition to these long-term consequences, eating a narrow variety of foods may also have more immediate health implications, including:
- Poor bone growth
- Vitamin and mineral deficiencies
Research indicates that children with autism tend to have a lower intake of calcium and protein in their diets, which can result in preventable diet-related diseases.
Tips for expanding your child’s diet
Children with autism benefit from structure and routine, which should include mealtimes. They should eat at predictable times, with three meals and two snacks each day. Children can be offered water in between meals, but other foods and drinks between scheduled meals should be limited.
Continue to put less-preferred foods on the table during meals. If these foods are removed completely, your child won’t have the opportunity to try new foods. New and nonpreferred foods should be given in small amounts, such as a single green pea or half of a grape, on a separate plate. By decreasing the amount of food you offer, your child is more likely to try the food.
If your child is still having feeding issues, read more about our Feeding Program.
We recognize that every child is unique and that the content of this article may not work for everyone. This content is general information and is not specific medical advice. We hope these tips will serve as a jumping-off point for finding the best approach to helping a child with autism. Always consult with a doctor or healthcare provider if you have any questions or concerns about the health of a child. In case of an urgent concern or emergency, call 911 or go to the nearest emergency department right away. Some physicians and affiliated healthcare professionals on the Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta team are independent providers and are not our employees.