Children with autism are more likely than their neurotypical peers to struggle with mealtimes and specific foods. This goes beyond simply being a picky eater.
Children on the autism spectrum often have very limited diets because they prefer only a few types of food and reject many others.
Food aversions are common in children with autism, and they are often based on the taste or, more often, texture of the food. Parents can help their children with food texture issues through a variety of approaches, such as pairing new foods with their favorite foods, introducing foods during play sessions, and involving children in the food prep process.
Rejecting Foods Based on Texture
One study found that people with autism do not have strong taste sensations compared to neurotypical individuals. This reduced experience with tasting saltiness, sweetness, and bitterness could mean that people with autism are more likely to focus on the textures of food rather than extremes in taste.
Parents of autistic children report that texture seems to be the main factor in their child’s food choices. One study found that 69% of parents observed that their child rejected foods based on texture, with appearance (58%), taste (45%), smell (36%), and temperature (22%) being the other common reasons for rejection.
Children with autism may develop rigid behaviors toward food for a variety of reasons. They may have such strong preferences that they reject anything that is not the food they want. They may have gastrointestinal problems that are triggered by certain foods. They may reject new experiences and fear new foods. They may genuinely dislike a texture and experience a physiological reaction to a textured food by gagging or moving away from it.
Take time to understand why certain food textures are appealing to your child while others are revolting. This understanding can help you improve your child’s diet, encourage them to try new foods, and prepare foods in a way that your child will enjoy the most.
Types of Texture Issues
While aversion to specific food textures is common in children with autism, the specific textures they may dislike are different. For example, one child may prefer only meat-like textures, while another may prefer only crunchy foods like chips or celery.
Pediatricians report that most children with autism tend to prefer foods that are high in carbohydrates, high in calories, and low in fiber. Snack foods are the most common culprits. These food preferences lead to gastrointestinal problems, especially in children who have extreme food refusal for anything healthier.
Why Are Food Aversions Based on Texture So Common in Children With Autism?
The underlying causes of feeding problems in children with autism are complex.
Preferences may be behavioral, meaning they may be part of the obsessive, repetitive, or ritualistic behaviors seen in people with autism. They could relate to gastrointestinal problems, as people with autism are statistically more likely to struggle with constipation, diarrhea, and stomach pain than their neurotypical peers, whether they experience feeding issues or not.
Problems with certain foods that lead to food rejection could stem from motor difficulty. People with autism are more likely to struggle with muscle strength and coordination. For children who prefer soft foods while rejecting other textures, this could indicate an underlying, larger problem with coordinating muscle movements.
Children on the autism spectrum tend to prefer low-textured foods. Trouble coordinating jaw movements or struggles with muscle strength in the jaw could be part of this preference.
Identifying the Causes & Potential Treatments
It is important to understand potential underlying issues if your child rejects new foods based on texture differences. Work with your pediatrician to determine if there are physical health reasons for this.
You may be referred to a specialist, including a nutritional therapist. If your child eats an extremely limited diet and is at risk of malnutrition, they may need to attend an intensive feeding clinic where they will receive treatment from behavior therapists and doctors.
Behavior therapy is the primary method of managing most symptoms of autism, including feeding problems like rejecting food based on texture. If there is no underlying physical reason for the issue, applied behavior analyst (ABA) therapy can help your child develop positive behaviors related to trying new foods.
How to Introduce New Food Textures to Your Autistic Child
There are several potential ways you can encourage your child to eat a wider range of foods, including food with textures outside their preference. Here are some recommendations for encouraging your child to try new food textures:
- Pair preferred foods with new or nonpreferred foods. You give your child some of the food they prefer when they try some of the food they do not prefer or are not familiar with.
- Desensitize them to certain foods they previously rejected by reintroducing the foods in new environments. First, reintroduce the food when it is not mealtime, such as during play sessions. Then, place it at the table during a meal without eating it. Then, move it to the child’s plate, and finally, encourage them to eat small bites of it.
- Cut new foods of different textures up into small pieces, so it is easier for your child to chew and swallow. This is especially effective for young children.
- Try “food chaining.” Make a list of the foods you know your child eats. Then, introduce new foods that are very similar to these, especially in texture. Vary one element of the food at a time, so your child does not feel overwhelmed.
- Keep scheduled mealtimes. Children with autism thrive on clear rules and routines. They may be more open to trying new foods if they are comfortable within a set schedule.
- Encourage your child to be part of the food preparation process from an early age. This will expose them to new foods in a way that gives them a sense of control.
- Keep the kitchen and dining areas calm, especially at mealtimes. Remove extraneous visual or auditory stimuli, which can add stress to the dining area.
If your child continues to reject healthy foods and does not eat a balanced diet, you can add vitamin and mineral supplements with the help of your pediatrician. Talk to the doctor about how to better balance your child’s diet if food aversions severely limit their food options.
Since ABA therapy is the gold standard of autism treatment, talk to your child’s ABA therapist about ways to target this specific issue in therapy. The positive behaviors acquired in ABA therapy will extend to every area of the child’s life, including feeding.
- Autism and Food Aversions: Seven Ways to Help a Picky Eater. (October 2018). Autism Speaks.
- Taste Identification in Adults With Autism Spectrum Conditions. (October 2011). Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders.
- Food Selectivity and Sensory Sensitivity in Children With Autism Spectrum Disorders. (February 2010). Journal of the American Dietetic Association.
- Feeding Problems in Children With Autism. (February 2014). Interactive Autism Network (IAN).
- Practical Strategies for Feeding Aversions in Children With Autism. Center for Autism & Related Disabilities at the University of South Florida.