It’s a pretty common occurrence for individuals with autism to develop food issues and become exceptionally fussy eaters. It's often an issue with any child, but it can become heightened in those with autism. When food challenges arise the effect that is has can be extremely concerning.
In this post, we are looking at ways to overcome food challenges and help to gain a better understanding of them.
What Causes Food Challenges
The number one cause of food challenges is sensory issues. Similar to how some people dislike mushrooms due to their texture, those with autism experience the same feelings but to a much deeper extent. In some cases, individuals with autism distinguish tastes in a much different way. They can often become oversensitive to flavors which can make them dislike a large number of foods. The sensitivity isn't just to texture or taste it can be smell or appearance also.
When it comes to touch, those with autism can either avoid touching it or play with it excessively. While avoiding it doesn’t seem like a major issue, it can be an indication that your child isn’t going to eat it, however it is best to leave the plate and let your child get used to the looking at the foods and their smells. If necessary, move the plate out of reach if your child doesn’t want it near them, no sense in upsetting them.
Even if you give them another plate with different foods leaving the plate for them to observe can be helpful over time. Often children with sensory challenges start playing with their food. Sometimes they need to be familiar with the texture before they decide whether or not to eat it or it could mean that touching the food is satisfying them and eating it will take away that satisfaction. Be accepting of your Childs need to explore their food, your being a safe harbor for your child to learn the world is important... way more important than the mess they may make.
A change in behavior when cooking food might come down to the sense of smell. For those who are oversensitive to smell, foods that are quite pungent will not be very appealing. Some individuals with autism will be put off from food just by the look of it. Certain foods may make them gag just by looking at them. The colors, arrangement, and shape could all be a factor along with any other items on the table or the surroundings. As far as the actual eating process goes crunching, chewing, and biting can either please or distress those with autism.
Other areas that can cause food challenges are coordination and the environment. These challenges will likely depend on other sensory issues that the individual already faces. Things like posture, routine, seating, cutlery, and other people around the dining table could all bring about issues with food.
It's not just over-sensitivity that causes food challenges, sometimes it can be the complete opposite, under-sensitivity. In under-sensitivity you may notice that your child prefers strong flavored foods, crunchy foods and drinks. In some cases obesity can be a concern as the individual doesn’t necessarily get the feeling of fullness that stops people from eating.
Ways To Help Over-sensitivity
I know that looking at all of the potential causes of food challenges can be a scary sight. There are so many things that might influence it and its worrying to find a manageable solution. But once you gain an understanding of the areas that spark issues at meal times you are then equipped to adapt your methods.
If strong aromas and tastes are an issue, it's probably best to prepare bland food and then offer seasoning separately. The cooking of food creates a much stronger smell than when it is on the plate, and so an easy solution may be to use seasonings after cooking foods. To ensure that visual perceptions aren’t the issue show the food to them first, if they seem unfazed then you will know that the look of it won’t be an issue. Outside of meal times work on sensory activities, specifically ones that focus on touch and proprioception.
Research has suggested that participating in these types of activities just before mealtimes can help to lower over-sensitivity. Altering the environment for mealtimes can also be effective. Whether it’s the lighting, background noise, or type of cutlery, simple changes can sometimes make all the difference. For many children movement during eating is helpful. You may notice that your child particularly likes to move around while eating or eat in the car. It is a way they can balance their
Ways To Help Under-sensitivity
Under-sensitivity can be more difficult to help. It usually means that the person is seeking strong movement, flavors, and textures in the hopes of satisfying dimmed senses. Again, coming up with solutions will require monitoring. If the individual is under-sensitive towards flavors and smells, then they will likely prefer highly seasoned dishes.
Sweet, sour, salty, and spicy foods or snacks will probably please them much more. Sometimes an under-sensitive individual has an attraction to the sounds and feel of eating. In this case, things like warm drinks, popsicles, crunchy foods or chewy foods could satisfy the senses.
Strong flavored foods like pepperoni, peppers, and spicy foods, bitter foods may attract their attention. Once you have found something they like figure out how to incorporate it into other foods. For example if your child likes garlic bread, use garlic bread to make their hamburger or a hot sandwich. This can be a win/win in expanding their food choices and giving them a sense of familiarity with things they already like!
The constant desire to feel things is another effect of under-sensitivity and placing sensory objects near them at mealtimes may help. Another thing to note about under-sensitivity issues is that some individuals have been known to ingest inedible objects. If this is an issue, then try offering alternative snacks that are extra crunchy or have an unusual texture.
Being observant to behaviors and attitude towards food when cooking it and at the table will help you identify any oversensitive or under-sensitive concerns. Once you understand potential issues, you can then plan meals that cater to taste, texture, smell, and consistency needs.
There are undoubtedly many areas of concern to look out for, but after a while, you start to get into a routine. Like everything, there will be bad days and good days, but it does get better.
What have you found that works for your child's food challenges? Let us know in the comment section below.