My autistic child is such a picky eater! Help?

Do you have a picky eater at home?

If your child is on the spectrum, this isn’t surprising. Many parents – even of children without development disorders – find themselves trying to manage picky eating, so you’re definitely not alone. We hear you!

Statistics tell us that about a fifth of all kids are picky eaters. This isn’t a hard and fast number, but it tells you there are a lot of kids out there who are pretty selective with what they put in their mouths and bellies. Among kids with autism, it’s definitely up there as a major challenge for parents and caregivers, and here are some of the reasons why.

It could be that your child is affected by the texture or flavor of the food. They might have a hard time chewing it, or they don’t like how it feels on their tongue. It could be that they’ve had unpleasant experiences before with a food that smelled, tasted or felt like the food they’re avoiding now. Kids with autism are generally less flexible with other things anyway, and it’s just as true for food.

Where you don’t have a to worry is that your picky eater is not going to start themselves; they may not eat a lot of what you want to serve, but they won’t let themselves go hungry. In fact, you’re probably more bothered than they are, because you’re worried about their nutrition and overall health.

So we’ve compiled a little list here that seem to hit the mark for a lot of picky eaters. Not everything on this list is the healthiest choice available, but there are ways to sneak in a nutritious ingredient or two that might just escape unnoticed.

  • Pepperoni (or plain) pizza
  • Grilled cheese
  • Macaroni and cheese
  • Peanut butter and jelly sandwiches
  • Hamburgers (plain, with not a lot of condiments)
  • Plain hotdogs
  • Potato chips,
  • French fries
  • Chicken nuggets
  • Cookies

Sounds like pretty standard, kid-friendly fare, doesn’t it? Think about the last time you went out to dinner – a lot of what’s on this list here shows up on every kid’s menu in America.

The thing is, when you have an autistic child who is also a picky eater, compassion and understanding is necessary. Your child isn’t a picky eater because they’re trying to be difficult. In some cases, some of their undesirables – broccoli or kale or liver – affect them in ways you would never consider. Some will throw up from the very scent of the food; others will simply gag, but that’s not very pleasant for them either.

It’s not always just about the scent or taste or texture, either. Sometimes, it’s about placement. They may actually like all the food on the plate – the nuggets, the French fries, the macaroni and cheese – but none of it can touch each other. If it does, it could be game over. If it’s served on a plate or in a bowl they have an aversion to, that might also cause a bit of grief. It may all be psychological, yes, but nonetheless, it’s real for them, and compassion and understanding is necessary here.

So what can be done?

First, it’s best not to pressure. This is a very real challenge for your autistic child, and not one of their choosing.

Next, enjoy your meals together, even if their meal is entirely different from the one the rest of the family is enjoying. Don’t fuss, don’t overwhelm, just be together and let them enjoy what’s going in their bellies (within reason, of course. A steady dinner diet of candy isn’t going to cut it.)

Ensure familiarity and routine. No matter what the dish, try to serve it at the same time every night, following the same traditions you’ve employed as a family.

Eating programs are available, and under the guidance of a professional, you’ll be able to help your child try new foods and build better and healthier eating habits. You’ll also learn how to improve the meal time experience and minimize struggles over food.

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