Rigid Eating Habits in Children on the Spectrum
Children on the autism spectrum are often very picky eaters. When mealtime issues arise, your first stop should be a pediatric gastroenterologist who has experience with kids on the spectrum, to make sure there are no medical issues. Other sources of mealtime problems include:
Sensory issues: Autistic kids often express a strong preference for foods that feel a certain way in their mouths. Some prefer soft or creamy foods like yogurt, soup or ice cream; others need the stimulation that crunchy foods like Cheetos or — if a parent is lucky, carrots — provide. In either case, that can put significant limitations on the different foods kids are willing to eat.
Underdeveloped oral motor musculature: Kids who eat almost exclusively soft foods may actually lack the muscle development that it takes to chew foods like steak or hamburger. Parents who don’t know this is the cause of their child’s distress will respond by allowing them to forgo the foods that would strengthen those muscles, so it becomes a vicious cycle.
Time and behavior at the table: Lots of parents experience the frustration of trying to get their children to sit at the table long enough to finish a meal. But with autistic kids the challenge can be magnified. And there is also the issue of safety. Unsafe behaviors might include throwing utensils or repeatedly getting up and running from the table.
For children and families who are struggling with an autistic child’s rigid eating habits, consulting a feeding specialist —this could be a child psychologist, speech-language pathologist or occupational therapist — can be helpful.