Feeding Behavior of Children with Autism

by Hedda Meadan-Kaplansky, PhD

boy eating an apple looking at other foods questioningly
A Boy Eating an Apple by USDA, Public Domain

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention one in every 59 children in the U.S. is diagnosed with autism.  Although the two primary characteristics of autism include deficits in social communication and interactions, and restricted, repetitive patterns of behavior, many children with autism also have difficulties with eating and mealtime.

Studies report that children with autism are five times more likely to struggle with feeding problems than their peers. [1]

Children with autism and their families may be impacted by (a) narrow and selective food choices, such as eating only French fries or food items with a specific texture; (b) ritualistic eating behaviors, such as not allowing food items to touch on the plate or having very strict eating schedule; and (c) mealtime tantrums and a refusal to eat.

Mealtime can become very stressful for everyone involved, including children, parents, caregivers, siblings, and peers.

Autism Speaks developed a parent guide entitled Exploring Feeding Behavior in Autism to support families.  This guide helps caregivers understand eating behaviors, provides guidance on addressing feeding issues, and reviews some common questions that families have about eating challenges. 

Various resources are available online to inform and support parents, caregivers, and professionals.

Autism Speaks provides an Expert Opinion section of their website which contains multiple articles addressing diet, nutrition, and selective eating for children with autism and their families.  The Interactive Autism Network conducted a Q&A interview with Dr. Anil Darbari, Medical Director of the Pediatric Gastroenterology/Nutrition and Feeding Disorders Program at the Kennedy Krieger Institute in Baltimore, on the treatment of feeding disorders in children with autism.

There are a few recommended steps to address eating and feeding difficulties of children with autism.

  1. Rule out medical conditions (e.g., constipation, food allergy) and consult with the child’s primary care physician.
  2. Work with a team of professionals (e.g., pediatrician, dietician, occupational therapist behavioral therapist) to develop a plan.
  3. Set a feeding schedule and routine.
  4. Try new strategies (e.g., offer new choices, provide rewards, model eating behavior).
  5. Be patient. Celebrate small and big accomplishments.

The 2019 MFLN FD Early Intervention webinar series, “Sunrise to Sunset: Supporting Children with Autism Through Their Day,” focuses on supporting young children with autism and their families.

The second webinar of the series, held June 12, 2019,  describes eating and feeding difficulties of children with autism and explores how professionals can support military and civilian families of children with autism.

Visit the webinar event page for “Yuck! I Don’t Eat That! Nutrition & Selective Eating in Young Children with Autism” to learn more or to watch the recording.

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