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Dealing with food refusal in children with autism

Dealing with food refusal in children with autism

1 in 44 children is diagnosed with Autism, according to the CDC. One of the most common challenges parents of children with autism face is getting their kids to eat enough and to eat healthy foods. Many kids with autism refuse to eat certain foods or will only eat a limited number of things. That can make mealtimes difficult and frustrating for everyone involved.

Of course, food refusal is not peculiar to children with autism. But children on the spectrum express various behavioral and social differences from a neurotypical child, one of which is avoidant eating or food refusal. Research has shown that kids with autism tend to express restrictive eating tendencies more than their neurotypical peers.

If your kid is rejecting some foods, they may have underlying reasons that are not necessarily related to the condition of autism. But nevertheless, it is vital to understand the general underlying factors of food refusal in kids with this condition in order to manage them better. Fortunately, there are several things you can do to help your child overcome food refusal and learn to enjoy healthy meals. 

A preliminary disclaimer is necessary here. The information offered here cannot replace professional advice from a medical practitioner. We strongly advise you to seek further professional diagnosis and guidance to proceed.

Causes of food refusal in kids with autism

When children merely reject food out of tiredness or for other non-psychological reasons, they will usually accept it again after a brief period. Food refusal in kids with autism, on the other hand, frequently involves a total and near-permanent rejection of specific foods or entire types of food. And this usually restricts their diet to a few items, some being unhealthy.

A child's diet may revolve entirely around specific foods such as fruit salads or cereals, and they will not eat anything else. This can be challenging to parents, as they strive to feed children with a balanced diet that has all the needed nutrients. 

One of the first steps to identifying a problem is understanding its cause, and dealing with the root reason of your child's difficulty with eating is crucial in giving them the help they need to improve their nutrition.

Medical causes 

The medical causes of avoidant eating in children with autism and neurotypical children may be similar. They include pain and discomfort linked with specific food intake, which gives the child a negative eating experience.

Some of the cases to look out for include:

  • Food allergies
  • Stomach cramps and other gastrointestinal disorders
  • Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
  • Acid reflux
  • Swallowing disorders

Studies show that kids with autism tend to experience one or more of these conditions. In addition, when these conditions are associated with certain food types, they are very likely to cause avoidant eating in children with autism.

Physiological causes 

One of the prevalent traits of kids with autism is their obstinate refusal to shift from specific rules or habits. This behavior often makes the already challenging effort of trying different meals even more difficult. Kids with autism may allow only one particular food brand. This can make it hard to introduce new food brands or delicacies. In addition, they may not even want to eat anything sometimes, let alone try a different meal. 

Another prevalent cause here is neophobia. This is a situation where the children show aversive reactions or fear when a new meal, mealtime, or meal environment comes around. Since children with autism thrive with schedules and organization, it can be taxing for them to adapt to new rules.

Motor controlled causes

When we talk about the neural alertness in kids with autism relating to food refusal, it is either the oral motor or oral sensory aspect.

The oral motor refers to muscle strength and movement, coordination, and ability to chew. However, oral sensory refers to the taste, hotness/coldness, and generally how the food feels in the mouth.

These factors can impair the eating habits of children with autism. This is related to how kids with autism usually have motor control difficulties. They may, therefore, be unable to chew a particular food and experience the right taste and temperature of the food. That often results in gagging at the smell, touch, or sight of the food, spitting out the food, or vomiting.

Psychological causes 

The tone and manner of approach when dealing with your child's refusal to eat can either yield positive or negative results. Negative comments, commands, and questions will make the child more reserved in food choices. It will also lower their confidence level whenever they try to overcome a particular challenge and fail. 

Managing food refusal in children with autism

There may not be any particular formula for managing food refusal in children with autism. However, below are some steps to help your child overcome food refusal due to autism.

Take care of the health issues 

The first step in helping your child try new and varied food is to tackle the medical causes. Take your child to a doctor or a specialist to diagnose and recommend treatments for underlying health concerns. This may include dental evaluation for cavities, constipation treatment, other gastrointestinal disorders, oral motor, oral sensory evaluation, etc.

Stronger when together

Children are prone to imitation, and this also applies to children with autism. In light of this, eating together at a table can help reduce anxiety in a child struggling to eat. When the child sees others eat, there is a high chance that the child will want to try it out. It will also reduce the anxiety associated with being alone, in front of the television, or on a parent's lap.

Everybody loves rewards

Children love rewards; in fact, they tend to appreciate them even more so than adults. Announcing a reward for children when they overcome a task such as eating, will go a long way to help them try new and varied food. However, the incentives must be something enticing to the child to convince them.

Use stories: Storytelling is a powerful way to engage anyone, not just children. When it comes to kids, telling them funny and inspiring stories helps to boost their imagination and relax their minds. You can use stories to help explain how the food will help your child achieve their dreams and grow stronger.

Relaxation before mealtime

Children with autism will sometimes become scared as mealtime draws close. Some of the many reasons include the fear of unfamiliar food and disgust. When this occurs, some parents tend to force the child to eat, and it causes the child to suffer anxiety as mealtime approaches. However, these fears are so powerful that they can eliminate hunger and appetite.

Parents should help the child relax before mealtime. Some ways to induce this relaxation are storytelling, playing favorite games, and singing favorite songs together before mealtime. 

Eye-catching food designs

Making the food attractive to your child can aid their appetite. For example, you can shape the food into triangles, stars, and other cute and relatable shapes. Also, mixing colors enticing to the child will go a long way.

Give your child options

Studies show that giving children choices makes them feel in control. For example, when introducing a new food, your child should be able to choose between two new options. So instead of just coming up with a particular food flavor, you can ask them to choose between this flavor or another.

Check your child's posture

Children with autism are prone to not being aware of their bodies. As a result, they can also suffer discomfort in their stomach and back. That may make sitting at the dining table difficult for your child.

You can help support their posture by providing extra support by putting pillows behind their back if this makes them more comfortable. 

See a therapist

You can also talk to a therapist to receive professional advice on other steps. For instance, you may need a behavior therapist or a psychologist to assess your child's behavior and advise on the best approach.

Final thoughts

Food refusal, among other habits, is common in children with autism, and it can harm their general health and well-being.

Some of the main tips covered earlier in the article include:

  • Food refusal is a common challenge for parents of children with autism. You’re not alone in this.
  • There are many possible causes of food refusal, including sensory issues, anxiety, and communication problems.
  • Some strategies can help overcome food refusal in children with autism.
  • It is essential to work with a doctor or therapist to determine the cause of food refusal and create a treatment plan.

By introducing new foods in comfortable ways, parents may help their children learn to eat and perhaps enjoy a more diversified diet. You can work with a feeding specialist or a feeding therapy clinic for professional guidance. 

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