Have you heard of people who only eat a certain type of food from a specific vendor, or only eat an extremely small range of food types?
People with autism might have this problem. It is not definite, so it does not necessarily mean that a person on the spectrum has definitely has limited food choices. However, it might come hand in hand because of the rigidity associated.
Rigidity refers to the desire to stick to a fixed routine, and mealtime takes up a big part of our daily routine. Hence, this regular and repetitive cycle may end up influencing mealtime and consequently, food choices as well. There is a wide range of ways a child can have food-related inflexibilities-- from eating only one type of cereal every day, not eating anything that is orange in colour, or only accepting their meal when its arranged a certain way, for instance not wanting any of the foods to touch each other.
Moreover, recall how many on the spectrum tend to have heightened sensory processing. This extends to our olfactory sense, and quoting Dr Danielle Dolezal,
"Rigidity and sameness contributes greatly to feeding picture. Eating is one of the most sensory experiences you can have.” ~Dr. Dolezal
With that, we might be able to understand better why they face pickiness with food and therefore better equipped to understand how we can help them, mainly by introducing flexibility in small and manageable ways.
Ultimately, despite rigidity being the likeliest factor, there is no one fixed reason. Some children may experience gastrointestinal pain during digestion, while children with oral motor delays may require increased effort chewing during meals and only prefer softer food types. This will be apparent since the child will also face difficulties communicating verbally as well, if the cause is related to his inability to control his facial muscles well. As our previous article on Sleep-related problems have mentioned, studies have shown that children on the spectrum show higher levels of anxiety than neurotypicals, which might give rise to sleeping problems. This anxiety may spread to eating habits, because even in a one-off incident that may have given them high stress levels, they may have developed a learned behavior to avoid that food item, making it difficult to overcome from then on.
Common gastrointestinal problems in autism are constipation, diarrhea, and gastroesophageal reflux (a.k.a. GERD or heartburn) which some adults may have experienced before. Gastric acid rises up to the chest area after a full meal, giving the feeling of a “heartburn”. Smaller and novel studies have found a difference in the gut colony of children with autism, and that is what may have caused a higher incidence rate of GI problems reported by autism clinics compared to general pediatric clinics, according to an article in the journal Pediatrics. Hence, this could also be a strong contributing factor to why children with autism have developed negative associations towards certain food types that they have had repeated bad experiences with.
Take notice of your child’s food preferences and that would help you better analyse what the possible causes are. Not to fret though, because you are not alone in this and there are always solutions to similar problems that other parents have faced as well. Keep a lookout for our subsequent article on tried and tested solutions to help overcome eating pickiness!
Written by Claudie.