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Strategies to expand food choices and reduce stress for individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD)

Vanessa and Nicholas Peat

30 March 2024

At Uniquely Created U (UCU), we understand the struggles of mealtimes with autistic children on a deeply personal level. We are not just healthcare professionals – we are a team that includes GPs, registered nutritionists, dieticians, stress management and behavioural change specialists, and neurodivergent individuals who are also parents to neurodivergent children. This means we bring not only clinical knowledge but also real-world experience to the table.

We want to share manageable strategies to help expand food choices and reduce mealtime stress for autistic individuals and their friends and family. Here are five approaches you can consider:

Desensitisation is key

  • Start small: Introduce new foods gradually. This allows for gradual exposure to the sensory aspects of the new food.
  • Pair with favourites: Serve a new food next to a well-liked one. This can provide a sense of comfort and familiarity, making the new item less intimidating.
  • Change the presentation: Experiment with different ways of presenting food. Chopping vegetables into smaller pieces, offering different textures (mashed vs whole), or using brightly coloured plates can make food more visually appealing.
desensitisation of food for autistic children, chopping small pieces of vegetables

Try positive reinforcement

Celebrate any attempt to try a new food, even if it's just a small bite. Positive reinforcement encourages exploration and reduces anxiety around new experiences. You can even establish a simple reward system for trying new foods. This can be a sticker chart, a small toy, or extra playtime, but avoid using food itself as a reward.

Think about sensory considerations

Try to minimise distractions and create a calm and quiet environment during mealtimes. Turn off the TV, dim the lights, and reduce background noise to reduce sensory overload. Instead, consistently creating a relaxing ambience by using calming diffuser scents or candles and playing quiet slow-placed relaxing music, just at mealtimes, can provide a positive situation every time you sit down to eat.

You can also provide a few options within a familiar food category (e.g., different coloured peppers) to give a sense of control and reduce anxiety around the unknown. But it’s important to respect a person’s choice. Don't force a child to eat something they find truly repulsive. Focus on gradual exposure and positive reinforcement over time.

Sensory considerations for autistic children, celebrate moments when they will wash a new vegetable

Remember routine and structure

It’s a good idea to involve children in mealtimes. One idea is to create a visual schedule outlining the mealtime routine, including setting the table and washing hands. This provides predictability and reduces anxiety.

Let your child participate in the meal preparation tasks they can handle, even if it is only getting ingredients out of the fridge, washing a vegetable, setting the table or arranging their own plate. This fosters a sense of control and ownership over mealtimes.

It can be hard, and expanding food choices takes time and patience. Celebrate small victories such as a new food item being placed on their plate or a plate next to theirs, even if they don’t eat it. If they touch or smell a new ingredient, applaud this achievement even if they are not yet ready to want to taste it. Avoid getting discouraged by setbacks.

If mealtimes aren’t going to follow the usual structure, such as a guest sharing the table, provide notice and explanation and ensure this change to routine is discussed with as much warning as possible.

Celebrating food exploration for autistic individuals, smelling a new fruit or vegetable

Seeking professional support

Many professionals can help support you and your family if selective eating is a problem. Types of specialists include:

  • Occupational therapists who can help with sensory processing issues and develop strategies for managing them at mealtimes.
  • Registered dietitians who can create personalised meal plans to address nutritional deficiencies and ensure a balanced diet despite selective eating.
  • Behavioural therapists who can help develop strategies for managing mealtime behaviours and promoting positive eating habits.

At UCU, we're more than just a team of doctors, nutritionists, and wellbeing specialists. We're also a group of people who understand neurodiversity firsthand, many of us being neurodivergent ourselves or having neurodivergent loved ones.

We know mealtimes with selective eating can be challenging. That's why we offer a multidisciplinary approach to address not just the nutritional aspects but also the sensory sensitivities and routines that can impact eating habits in autistic individuals.

If you're looking for support with neurodiversity, selective eating, gut health, or any related concerns, contact us today. We can help you navigate these challenges and create a more positive mealtime experience for everyone.

By implementing simple strategies and seeking professional support when needed, you can help autistic individuals develop a more positive relationship with food and reduce the stress associated with mealtimes. It's important to remember that progress may be slow, but you can achieve a wider range of enjoyable food choices with patience and persistence.

Remember, there's a whole community of autistic individuals and families facing similar challenges. Local support groups or online forums can connect you with people who understand the specific struggles of autism and selective eating.

You don't have to navigate this alone.

Let's champion wellbeing together!

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FAQ's: Food and Autism

Can autism be caused by food?

No, there's no evidence that food directly causes autism. Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) likely stems from a combination of genetic and environmental factors. While certain foods haven't been linked to causing ASD, some children with autism may have food sensitivities or preferences that affect their diet.

Can food make autism worse?

While there's no scientific proof that specific foods worsen autism symptoms, some people on the spectrum may benefit from dietary changes. They might have sensitivities to certain ingredients or gut issues that can be addressed through an elimination diet supervised by a healthcare professional.

What is autism-friendly food?

There isn't a single "autism-friendly" food, as preferences vary widely. However, focusing on textures, tastes, and presentations that are less likely to cause sensory sensitivities can be helpful. This might include offering mild-flavoured foods with predictable textures (like crackers) and allowing customisation for meals.

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