Researchers at Marcus Autism Center at Emory University School of Medicine found that children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) are five times more likely to have mealtime challenges such as food selectivity, ritualistic eating behaviors, and tantrums.
The researchers discovered that inadequate nutrition is also more common among children with autism and, in particular, they found an overall low intake of protein and calcium. Calcium is important for building strong bones and protein is necessary for growth, mental development, and overall health.
Poor or difficulty eating also puts autistic children at an increased risk for being susceptible to social difficulties and lowered academic achievement, the researchers learned.
“Whenever a child has a disability the importance of nutrition escalates,” says Joan Guthrie Medlen, MEd, RD, a coach and advocate for parents who have children with disabilities and special needs. “For a child with ASD, a healthy, balanced diet can make a world of difference in their ability to learn, how they manage their emotions, and how they process information.”
As a parent with a child on the autism spectrum, you’re not alone if your child is a picky eater. According to the Emory University School of Medicine research team, up to 70 percent of parents with children on the autism spectrum report problems with narrow eating habits that start in childhood and continue into adolescence and adulthood.
Psychologist Emily Kuschner, PhD., of the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP), recommends the following strategies to widen the diet of children with autism:
Rule Out Medical Issues. Gastrointestinal distress is common among children with autism, many of whom can’t easily describe their distress. If your child is unreceptive to foods, consult with a pediatrician or family doctor who can help you figure out how to deal with it.
Consider Food Textures. Autism often comes with hypersensitivity to textures. Think of how a food feels in your child’s mouth, rather than its flavor, that’s producing a food aversion. Try chopping or blending to alter offending textures.
Remain Calm. Be patient as your child explores and samples new foods. Children with autism-sensitive food issues may take more than a dozen tries with a single food item.
Play with Food. Cooking is a fun and effective way to strengthen communication skills and helps develop positive social interactions for those on the autism spectrum. Bring your child into the kitchen and allow them to experiment, try, and play with the ingredients while you cook together. A fun recipe we recommend is this easy-to-make chicken salad wrap.
Offer Choices and Control. Your loved one with autism may need to feel some control over what she puts into her mouth. At mealtime, put five types of foods on the table and allow her to choose at least one vegetable and one protein.
As a parent of a child with autism, be prepared for pickiness and be gracious. Many parents find their child’s sensitivity to tastes, colors, smells, and textures to be frustrating, but also to be the biggest barriers to a balanced diet. “Children with ASD have to work harder at mealtimes,” says Medlen.
And don’t feel like you have to go at it alone. Get support.
“In addition to working with your child’s health care team, seek out parents who have had success with food interventions,” says nutritionist Laura Lagano, MS, RD. “Support is crucial when you’re raising a child with special needs.”
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