Dietary issues

The issue of diet is an important one in regard to autistic children. There are children with an autistic spectrum disorder who have difficulty with their diet which then leads to weight gain and subsequently, long term health problems.

There are children who choose a bland diet or one in which they will only eat certain kinds of foods which can cause health problems such as vitamin deficiencies etc. These children choose foods which they consider easy to eat and comforting as well.

Examples of these include bread, dry cereal and rice.

Plus some children suffer from gastrointestinal problems such as constipation or a stomach upset as part of their disorder. This means that they have to be careful about the types of foods they eat and choose a restricted diet instead.

An example of this is choosing foods which are wheat-free such as couscous, quinoa, soya etc.

Diet problems for autistic children

A main issue is overeating where the child does not understand the importance of self-control or has an obsessive interest in a particular food which they eat to excess.

Conversely, there are children who ’undereat’, usually due to the fact that they are hypersensitive to the texture and feel of a food. They dislike touching certain foods and/or placing them in their mouths which causes them to avoid these foods altogether.

The danger with this is that they can become seriously underweight which comes with its own set of problems.

But a loss of appetite can be symptomatic of an illness rather than an aspect of their behaviour so it is worthwhile checking for other signs such as nausea, stomach ache and a fever.

Medication can sometimes affect the appetite. It can suppress feelings of hunger or conversely, cause an increase in appetite which then leads to overeating.

Food issues and autistic children

Autistic children prefer familiarity and day to day routine. They have a strong need for conformity and this extends to food and eating habits in general.

They prefer to have the same meal at the same time each day. Any change to this however small, unsettles them and often results in anxiety. For example, changing the position of a food item on the plate or even alternating the items.

An autistic child will want a food with a particular taste, texture and colour. This food must not be too sweet or spicy and easy to digest.

Autistic children are no different from other children when it comes to food likes and dislikes but may find it more difficult to communicate their preferences. So, they may resort to outbursts or challenging behaviour in order to express these preferences.

If your child becomes angry or upset during a meal then this might be due to a dislike of the food in front of them rather than just a temper tantrum or an aspect of behaviour.

Plus a major factor in much of this is social interaction. Mealtimes are events in which we sit down and consume foods with others and involve a series of rituals whilst we do so. This is something which many of us enjoy doing as it is a time when we talk to others, often about a variety of subjects whilst eating foods that we like and find appealing.

But this can be a stressful time for an autistic child who finds it difficult to eat with other people, and interact at the same time. They often prefer to eat by themselves or have a particular ’food fad’at that time which they are unwilling to share with others.

Dealing with food issues in autistic children

There are different ways of approaching this which are based upon trial and error. Every child is different in regard to food so what works for one child may not be the best option for your child.

Try to adopt a calm and consistent manner and avoid showing any anger or frustration if your child refuses to eat. Instead, reassure them that they have not done anything wrong or will be punished for this refusal. Introduce them to different foods or disguise a particular food, for example, change the way it is cooked or presented.

Ensure that mealtimes are relaxed and stress free affairs without any sensory overload. Switch off the radio or television and move into another room if necessary.

Encourage your child to handle food or to prepare and cook simple meals. The more they become familiar with touching food the better they will feel about it.

If overeating is a problem then ensure that your child has limited access to the fridge or cupboards where food is stored. Explain clearly and firmly why they cannot eat more than is good for them and use visual cues such as picture cards to reinforce this message.

Talk to them about healthy eating and devise a routine for mealtimes. Reduce their portions and/or present the food on a smaller plate. Encourage your child to exercise as this will help to burn off those calories and prevent an increase in weight (or lose the extra pounds!).

Ask your GP, dietician or consultant psychologist for advice. Do this if your child refuses to eat or is at risk of health problems due to under or overeating.

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