Many adults take the initiative to eat healthier with the start of the new year, and eating better can be a great goal for kids too, especially those with autism/ASD (Autism Spectrum Disorder).
Autism is a developmental disability that affects approximately one in every 44 American children and teenagers. Symptoms occur to varying degrees (on a spectrum) in each child, but common traits can include nonverbal or delayed speech, difficulty connecting in social settings, repetitive or obsessive behaviors, and sensitivities to some things like noise and foods.
Autism and Food Connection
Most children have tendencies to be fussy eaters at one time or another, but those with autism can be particularly fussy. For example, they may protest your encouraging them to try new foods or insist on eating the same thing over and over again at each meal.
“I visit with parents frequently about the food challenges they face with their children who have autism,” says Child Neurology Consultants’ board-certified pediatric neurologist and autism specialist Dr. Ryan Boeck. “One of the most common difficulties I hear of are limiting food choices or exhibiting strong, even aggressive, dislike of certain foods, or smells or textures of foods.”
Additional food-related challenges that Dr. Boeck sees in his patients are:
Not eating enough and getting proper nutrition, as children and teens with autism may have a hard time focusing or sitting still long enough to finish an entire meal.
Constipation due to narrowed food choices and gastrointestinal issues.
Adverse reactions from some medications (such as those with stimulants used to help with autism) can sometimes curb the appetite.
Dr. Boeck urges parents not to give up and reminds them that it’s important to keep working with your child on what they are eating and their eating habits.
Establishing Healthy Habits
All children need well-balanced diets with foods chock full of vitamins, healthy fats (omega-3s), protein, and calcium to help their brains develop and bodies grow strong.
For children with autism, it can be more trying to get them to eat well, which could negatively impact their learning and schoolwork, as well as how they process emotions and connect with others.
Here are some tips that Dr. Boeck suggests to help boost nutrition and improve eating habits:
1 – Lean into their pickiness.
You already know they might be picky, so have them take the lead when encouraging them to try a new food. Take your child to the grocery store with you and make it a fun adventure to let them pick out a new fruit or vegetable, and then perhaps even let it sit on the counter for a few days so they can study it–touch it, smell it, etc. Then have your child research popular recipes featuring the new food and have them help you prepare it to their liking.
2 – Make mealtimes routine, even boring.
Children with autism often crave repetition, so eating at the same time, in the same place, with the same plates and silverware will help them feel more grounded going into mealtime.
Eliminate things around the kitchen that could distract them from eating and finishing, such as the television or computers, cell phones, bright lights, pets, or noisy appliances.
3 – Be cautious about restrictive diets and/or seek guidance from a registered nutritionist.
Many parents claim that a gluten or casein-free diet can help lessen autism symptoms. Gluten is found in wheat and other grain products, and casein is found in dairy—both are thought to have negative effects on brain function in those with autism.
Although there are varying scientific reports supporting these diets, if you choose to try them for your child, make sure they are getting enough nutrients from other sources. Be careful, however, not to supplement wholly with vitamins, as they too can have a negative impact if given in incorrect amounts or in conjunction with certain medications.
The help of a registered dietician will help you fill in the gaps where they might be missing out on a restrictive diet.