Eating Behaviors of Children with Autism

For parents of children with autism, eating difficulties, food aversions and restrictive dietary requirements can be par for the course. And though many children will experience some kind of problematic eating behaviors growing up, for children with autism these aversions and fixations tend to be much more complicated to navigate.

Picky eating and autism often go hand in hand, so let’s take a look at how autism can affect eating habits, and how parents and caregivers can manage these eating issues.

How Autism Can Affect Your Childs’s Diet

Difficulty with eating habits or patterns for autistic children tend to be caused by two things. First, children can feel fear and anxiety around trying new foods that will manifest themselves in severe dietary restrictions and strange behaviors around food. And secondly, sensory aversions can also drive children away from unfamiliar foods or specific types of foods.

Here is how eating difficulties can manifest for children on the autism spectrum:

  • Specific preferences: Some children with autism will only eat specific food groups or types. These can be based on texture (crispy, crunchy, soft, etc), colors, temperatures, or flavors. Foods outside of these preferences may trigger feelings of anxiety, fear, or discomfort.
  • Challenging behavior during eating times, such as breaking or throwing utensils, refusing to sit still, or leaving the table. These may be tactics to avoid eating certain foods.
  • Refusal to eat: Children with very restrictive dietary preferences due to anxiety may refuse to eat until they are given those foods. Those feelings of fear and anxiety can shut down their hunger entirely.
  • Some children may only be able to eat soft foods due to underdeveloped chewing skills. Children on the autism spectrum are more susceptible to motor deficits which can cause difficulty chewing or swallowing.

Intervention For Tricky Eating Behaviours

There are a number of ways that parents can address difficult autism eating habits in their children. But first, it is essential that you seek out proper medical advice from a healthcare professional before looking for ways to improve your child’s diet and eating habits. A medical professional will be able to rule out a possible gastrointestinal disorder and refer you to an appropriate therapist who specializes in treating children on the autism spectrum.

Above all, finding a good therapist will be the most effective treatment to help curb these atypical eating issues, particularly those who specialize in Applied Behavioral Analysis (ABA). An ABA therapist will develop a unique, specialized treatment plan to help your child work through their autism-related eating difficulties.

Treatment plans can include:

  • Teaching you to use positive reinforcement strategies, such as a reward system, when your child does accept non-preferred foods
  • Slowly and systematically introducing non-preferred foods into your child’s diet, and increasing the variety of foods they will accept
  • Introducing more choices (of foods, drinks, plates, utensils, eating locations) to help your child feel more in control during meal times
  • Model eating, such as eating with friends and family in groups and using a self-serve platter style of eating to encourage your child to feel more control and ownership of non-preferred foods

If your child is struggling with a typical diet due to motor deficits involving the tongue and jaw, visits to an occupational therapist and/or speech pathologists may help.

Autism and Atypical Eating

Atypical eating habits do not have to be detrimental to children with autism, especially when addressed carefully early on. But it’s understandable that parents may be concerned – after all, restrictive eating can be severe enough to stunt a child’s growth via malnutrition and weight loss, as well as obesity, all of which can result in health problems later in life such as diabetes and bone growth.

At this point the link between eating issues and autism is clear. According to one Penn State study, 70% of children with autism will display atypical eating behaviors, which is as much as 15 times more than neurotypical children. Not only is autism closely linked with problematic eating, but eating issues in children can also be a significant indicator that your child is on the autism spectrum.

It’s important to be aware of these early signs, as treatment and intervention in a child’s early years will result in better outcomes later in life.

If you have a child who struggles with picky eating and autism-related eating habits, finding a behavioral therapist may be the right choice for you. If you want to know more about how ABA therapy can help your child maintain a healthy and consistent diet, get in touch with our team at Bolling ABA. We are a behavioral consulting service based in Atlanta, GA, with a commitment to helping people with autism to reach their full potential. To book your first free consultation, get in touch with us via email at, or call us at 404.981.4105.

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