As many as 70 percent of parents of children on the autism spectrum identify overly narrow eating as a problem. If you have a kid with an autism spectrum disorder (ASD), you’re undoubtedly aware that food aversions and behavioral issues can make mealtime a real challenge. Getting your child to eat enough food or a properly balanced diet may be extremely difficult, and because of this reality, kids with ASDs are at elevated risk for constipation, digestive discomfort, and nutritional deficiencies. That’s why healthy eating for children with autism spectrum disorders is such an important topic.
Obstacles to Healthy Eating in Kids with ASDs
Some factors that commonly interfere with a child’s healthy diet include:
- Aversions to individual foods or entire food groups (often fruits and/or vegetables)
- Aversions to particular textures (soft, slippery foods are frequently rejected, for example)
- Aversions to specific tastes, smells, or colors
- Difficulty focusing long enough to eat a full meal
- Reduced appetite from stimulants like Ritalin or other medication
- Inhibited nutrient absorption as a medication side effect
It’s important to note that some food aversions may be due to food allergies or food sensitivities. These conditions aren’t the same, and food allergies are potentially life threatening. Children with ASDs may not adequately communicate the symptoms or sensations they experience with these conditions. So, if your son or daughter has particular food aversions, consult your pediatrician about the possibility of a food allergy or sensitivity.
Nutrition for Children with ASDs
Every kid needs protein, the full array of vitamins and minerals, fiber, healthy fats, and other nutrients. They should be getting it from a balanced diet that includes foods like animal and/or plant-based proteins, fruit, veggies, whole grains, and lean dairy.
Some nutrients have been shown to be of particular benefit to children with an autism spectrum disorder. Omega-3 fatty acids are a key one; rich sources include fatty fish (e.g., salmon, tuna, mackerel, trout), nuts and seeds, and plant-based oils. Probiotics are also helpful, especially in kids with digestive symptoms. Vitamins B6 and C as well as magnesium have demonstrated the ability to reduce symptoms associated with ASDs. Also, well-controlled blood sugar levels are essential, so whole grains are preferable to refined grains, and added sugar should be significantly limited.
Tips to Promote Healthy Eating for Children with Autism Spectrum Disorders
Here are some strategies for encouraging healthier eating in your child:
- Don’t allow picky eating or other meal-related issues to trigger arguments, punishment, or other conflict; meals should be a positive experience
- Bring your child along to participate in grocery shopping and picking out new foods to try
- Involve your child in the decision of how to prepare new foods
- Don’t put pressure on your child to try a new food; again, keep the experience with new foods positive and as stress-free as possible, and understand that repeated exposure—even if it doesn’t include consumption—creates increased familiarity and higher chances of sampling
- Build up to trying a new food by serving it a few times and first just looking at it together, then touching it, then perhaps playing with it a little, then licking it, and ultimately trying a bite
- Give your child a favorite food along with any new one
- When appropriate, let your child mix a new food with a familiar liked one for the first sampling
- Provide your child with food choices (for example, two or three vegetables) to allow him or her some sense of control, and to reaffirm that it’s OK to have preferences—you do too, no doubt
- Try altering a food’s texture to see if it, rather than the taste, is the source of an aversion (e.g., kids with ASDs may not like what happens when they bite into a cherry tomato, but they may like the taste and eat it if it’s mashed up)
- Make mealtimes as routine as possible in terms of time and the overall dining environment
- Consult a professional nutritionist to identify specific risks in your child’s diet and to help tailor a plan to prevent nutritional deficiencies
- Give your child a multivitamin supplement (which can be helpful for preventing nutritional deficiencies, but it’s not a substitute for a balanced diet)