Searching for tips to reduce eating challenges in children on the spectrum? Research shows that children on the spectrum have a higher percentage of being selective eaters, and it’s okay to have questions like…

How can I help my autistic child eat better?

What are dietary interventions for autism spectrum disorder?

What are the typical eating habits of children with autism?

Working with an ABA professional and understanding your child’s eating challenges may give you the answers you’ve been looking for all along.

What do you do if your autistic child won’t eat? Let’s discuss ABA treatments.

15 Tips For Children With Autism To Address Eating Challenges & Support Nutritional Goals

Read the following tips to reduce eating challenges in children on the spectrum.

1. ABA Treatment Is A Collaborative Effort

When working with a feeding plan for your child with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), medical needs ALWAYS come first. Treatment is a collaborative effort, which means your child’s primary care physician’s approval along with feedback from other specialists is needed to ensure they’re physically capable of taking part in any type of treatment to overcome eating challenges.

2. Relying On Routine At Mealtimes

To better understand what’s going on in your child’s head, you should know that changes in their day can heavily impact them. That’s why it’s important to be consistent. Minor adjustments to you can be huge to your child.

A few other quick tips about your child’s mealtime routine:

  • Offer new foods consistently, even if the child does not eat them
  • Try to be as consistent as possible by having a designated space to eat and experience new foods
  • Don’t forget the visual presentation of the food!
  • Serve smaller portions and make sure to separate all foods so they are not touching one another

Offering a consistent mealtime experience for your child with ASD continues to work on desensitizing their aversion to food, which ultimately allows a more natural setup and routine of being exposed to new foods.

3. Atmosphere

Before any food hits the table, reduce the sensory stimuli like loud noises or bright lights to create a calm and encouraging mealtime environment. Additional environment-related tips to reduce eating challenges in children on the spectrum:

  • Turn off the TV during mealtimes
  • Limit personal phone and tablet usage at the table
  • Declutter the kitchen or dining area to minimize distractions

5. Careful Introduction Of New Foods

In addition to smaller portions, you should introduce new flavors and textures gradually. Too many items piled up on one plate with different flavors, textures, and colors can be overwhelming to someone who is on the spectrum.

If your child is eating but you want to see them eat other foods, avoid rushing the process. Children on the spectrum are often food-selective and only want a few foods. Progress takes time and should happen gradually.

6. Navigating Different Food Categories

Speaking of progress, the reasoning behind slowly introducing new foods is largely because there are so many choices. From cereal and bread to milk and snacks, the options appear endless! With this said, it helps to think of mealtime this way – it’s incredibly frustrating for you when you aren’t able to know what your child is trying to tell you they like, don’t like, and want to eat. You simply want them to eat and be happy and healthy.

On the other hand, it’s also extremely frustrating to be the child in this situation and know what you want without being able to communicate it properly.

In this case, it’s important to understand the benefits of introducing new foods that are of the preferred color and/or texture of the child to set them up for success. You may notice the foods your child wants have a common theme. Color and crunch are popular food themes. A recent study about the Patterns of Food Selectivity Among Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder broke down their findings by asking each patient 15 questions about sensory preferences alone, plus 8 questions for food appearance and plating. Because routine is crucial, slowly introducing new foods and experiences is essential for their development.

7. Sensory Engagement

Offering choices – within limits – empowers your child and increases their sense of control during meals. While experimenting, let your child touch, smell, and taste different foods to find what they like and don’t like. Something as seemingly minor as a food’s color can make all the difference to your child. However…

You know your child best.

As they explore, it’s okay to step in when you feel it’s necessary. Do what you know will help them feel encouraged to continue experimenting. And while we’re on the subject…

8. Encouragement

Use positive reinforcement to encourage trying new foods, taking bites, and even finding something new they may not like at all!

Behavior-Specific Praise. Try using phrases like…Good job for trying bananas! I’m so proud of you for taking a bite of chicken. When using verbal praise, it should be specific, immediate, and genuine.

External Praise is also a beneficial practice when done consistently and repetitively. External praise includes making gestures, cheering, and celebrating. Many families use a preferred food follow-up as a form of praise. You may also think about giving them access to a preferred toy or activity as a form of praise.

9. Strategize

You may have a child who will only eat one type of food or food within a category. This isn’t at all uncommon and is seen in about 70% of children with ASD. Approaching mealtimes using a tailored strategy can encourage your child to try and accept new foods.

When strategizing to reduce eating challenges in children on the spectrum, include all important focus areas into your ABA mealtime treatment plan such as…

  • Selecting new foods that are high in calories as well as similar in preferred texture if the child has caloric deficits
  • Choosing new foods that the child does not eat that are similar in preferred texture if they lack specific food groups in their daily diet
  • Introducing new foods in smaller portions to increase acceptance

Double-check that any new foods you introduce align with your child’s overall ABA mealtime treatment plan.

10. Meal Preparation

If your child is on the spectrum and engages in a lot of pretend play, you may consider involving your child in meal preparation. This can be a fun and engaging way for them to increase their engagement and interest in food. While this may not be possible to do every time, the idea here is to relate to their world.

This potential activity can help expose your child to foods that can be broken down into digestible parts. For example, you and your child can put a turkey and cheese sandwich together by showing them how each part creates a larger picture.

Remember, engaging in meal preparation will depend on the learner, their skill set, and their cognitive ability to determine whether it’s something that is in their wheelhouse or not.

11. Family Involvement

We understand not wanting to leave anyone else in your home out of your mealtime habits. Talk to the rest of your family to understand the importance of getting on board at meal times while supporting a positive eating environment. Most importantly, patience on everyone’s behalf will be vital to alleviating eating challenges in children on the spectrum.

Reach out to our team for ASD services for children and adults.

12. Foster Focus

Because sensory issues are real and can heavily impact your child’s eating experience, minimizing distractions during meal times to help your child focus on eating. Restaurants are a huge challenge for families and caretakers – often because it’s too loud, crowded, or full of various movements.

When eating in public is the only option, it helps to have preferred items that offer comfort. Whenever possible, try not to go too out of the box…try a calm restaurant that matches their food style.

13. Patience

Avoid pressuring your child to eat and allow them to explore foods at their own pace. Patience is a skill that everyone has to develop. So be patient with yourself along the way. Wherever you’re at is important. Remember, it’s a journey and you can take that journey at your family’s pace. Ask your specialist about timing. It’s okay to work on it and take breaks if it gets overwhelming.

14. Access A Support System

One of the most uplifting parts of having a team of ABA practitioners in your corner is that they also give you access to many reliable resources. Furthermore, you’re more likely to be connected with other families and caregivers familiar with the ABA therapies available. This is a good place to start if you want to find advice, hear real stories, and share your experience with the rest of the Potential community.

15. Food Logging

If you eat, you’ve probably used a food log at some point in your life. Mostly used to track weight loss, food logging is not simply for dieting. You can use an app or notebook and pen to give you a good idea of how your child with ASD is progressing. Use your food log to:

  • Track food preferences
  • Identify challenges
  • Measure progress

Understanding Your Child With Autism Is Easier To Navigate With Specialty Support

Working with a team of professionals who understand your child’s ways of thinking makes a huge difference for children and their families. Need support beyond strategies for picky eaters with autism? Explore ABA services to reduce eating challenges in children on the spectrum.

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