Picky and preferential eating is a common issue for children diagnosed with ASD. The behavior of preferential eating can be very difficult for families to manage at mealtimes and may lead to more serious concerns such as nutritional deficiencies, under-eating, and over-eating. Developing healthy eating habits is important for children of any age.
Common signs of preferential eating:
- Limited acceptance of food textures and tastes
- Needing a specific presentation of food
- Eating only small amounts
- Gagging/vomiting when given a new food
- Inappropriate mealtime behavior
- Acceptance of specific locations or brands
Prior to starting any plan for food selectivity, it is imperative to rule out any medical conditions that may be influencing the child’s feeding difficulties. A few common medical concerns may include gastro-esophageal reflux disease (GERD) and/or food allergies or intolerances. It is also important to address and rule out any possible structural or motor issues that could be contributing to a child’s limited food repertoire. A pediatrician can assist in this area. After ruling out any underlying medical condition, families can set goals towards expanding their child’s food repertoire.
Breakdown mealtime into bites!
Families working with a picky eater may be looking for ways to make mealtimes less stressful. Using the principles of ABA, parents can help their child and work toward positive outcomes.
- Offer broad choices of tastes and textures and allow your child to choose which one to try.
- Utilize a visual display for expectations at the table and rewards for following those rules.
- Stick to a predictable schedule for meals and snacks to ensure your child is hungry at mealtime.
- Start with small bites and gradually increase the size as your child makes improvements in accepting foods. Starting with a “kiss” to the food can be the first step.
- Utilize positive reinforcement for acceptance of each bite of food. Some children may be reinforced with smiles and praise. Others prefer music, time with a specific toy, or a few minutes away from the table.
- Use the most preferred reinforcers for the part of mealtime that your child struggles with the most, whether that is remaining seated at the table, bringing utensils to their mouth, chewing their food, or swallowing their food.
These are just a few suggestions for making mealtimes easier. The most important thing to remember is to remain patient. Children diagnosed with autism may be easily overwhelmed by new foods and textures. Allow many opportunities to experience different foods and remember that everyone has their own preferences. Consult with a professional for more helpful information.
Taylor Ricker, LBA/BCBA, is a Clinical Supervisor at Family of Kidz.