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Strategies to deal with fussy eating (food sensitivity) in Autism

By accurately identifying the underlying cause, we may be better able to use the right strategies to tackle fussy eating.

In our previous article on causes of fussy eating, we discussed on the range of reasons that children and teenagers on the spectrum may have that caused them to be picky when it comes to food choices. Since neuro-typical children already have their own food preferences and perhaps even a narrow food choices to overcome, it may be even more challenging for children with autism. However, by accurately identifying the underlying cause, we may be better able to use the right strategies to tackle the problem.

Firstly, try to find out the cause. This means being able to distinguish whether it’s medical related, sensory related or behavioral related.

  • GI discomfort

If it is due to medical reasons, of course we should take a different approach and not force them to eat something they avoid. Because even if they are unable to verbally express how they feel, their actions may show their avoidance towards certain foods due to it giving them discomfort from past experiences.

Find alternatives that contain similar nutritional content and include that in his diet instead. There is little likelihood that the food your child refuses to eat is indispensable, so you don’t have to force him and make meal time a negative thing!

  • Texture

Secondly, if it’s sensory related, try to analyse what types of food they do not like. Just like how I love tofu but a close friend hates tofu, because of its soft texture. People may hate tomatoes but love ketchup, because of the squishy nature of the ripe tomato fruit. Hence we

can deduce that the underlying cause is not taste but texture. Bear in mind that people on the spectrum have much stronger senses than us. That could be a huge factor that is easy to overlook. The idea is to allow your child to explore new food items by just looking, touching and smelling even if they aren’t mentally ready to put it into their mouths right away.

In other words, introduce it to them bit by bit in a non-stressful manner! New food items that you want to introduce to them should not deviate too much from what they enjoy, for example, if they like crunchy uncooked carrots, you could also let them munch on cucumber sticks. Another way that may work is by pairing or mixing it with their favourite food.

  • Snacking

Boredom is not hunger! If you child tends to snack when bored, keep him occupied with some interesting activities until it is proper mealtime. Healthy snacks as fillers in between meals are okay, but keep junk out of reach and even better, out of sight so they are not constantly in full view.

  • Need for routine

This may have little to do with the taste or texture of foods but rather the desire to have the exact same meal that they are so used to. This need for routine can be pretty extreme; a child who only eats chicken rice every day and nothing else may be resistant to the extent that even chicken rice from a different vendor may not be acceptable! However, this is detrimental nutrition-wise and impractical in the long run and something has to be done. The good news is that since this is clearly a behavioural issue, it can be reduced and changed eventually.

If your child has an older sibling that he tends to follow or mimic, showing him how much you all love eating something else can also help him be more open to trying the food items.

  • Preoccupation with one type of food

Disguising foods may help if you really want to add e.g. vegetables into his diet. By chopping it into tiny pieces, you can mix it into pizza. Some children, including neuro-typicals, are so resistant to greens that they will have to pick out their peas one by one from fried rice just because it is a vegetable. Let them do it on their own rather than doing it for them or they will never know the hassle!

Although this won’t immediately change your child’s eating behaviour, it is ok to keep having that rejected food item as an option to ensure continued exposure rather than just conforming to his/her inflexibility.

Remember that exposure, but not force, can increase familiarity and openness to new foods. Research by the University of Michigan has found that pressures from adults were not at all effective in changing a child’s picky eating habits. Praise or even reward your child when he finally tries something new, however small it may be. However, avoid using the reward as a bribe so he does not just make himself eat something for the sake of gaining access to what he wants! The ideal is to create an impression that he made the decision through his own free will.

This leads us to the next point: By offering a choice between two foods, your child may also feel a greater sense of control and reduced pressure to eat something they have negative associations with.

Last but not least, remember that our taste buds gradually change as we get older. I’m sure you have had changes in your food choices throughout your life as well. When you used to love sweet things but that sweet tooth naturally faded as you grew older. When you were resistant to slimy ladyfingers, but now love it. Scientifically and evolutionary speaking, taste buds do change. To end off with a fun fact, an interesting research even found that children’s taste buds are much more sensitive to bitter foods than ours, so approach with patience and understanding! :)

Written by: Claudie

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