Making Sense of Sensory Part 2 Autism and Picky Eating
A lot of people with autism are known to be picky eaters. For instance, some people on the spectrum will only eat hot foods and some will only eat cold foods, and others are very selective eaters where they may eliminate food groups like meat or vegetables. One reason people are picky eaters is because people judge foods based on how they look, feel, or smell. Sometimes people learn that certain foods “don’t agree with them” and then avoid them. There’s a lot we are still learning about autism and gastrointestinal interactions. When someone looks at a piece of tree bark or a piece or garbage, for example, their senses tell them that this is not edible, therefore they don’t eat it. So whenever I see food that I don’t think I will like and someone says “how do you know you don’t like it if you’ve never tried it”? I often say to them, how do you know you don’t like tree bark if you never tried it? The same goes for sensitive eaters especially ones on the spectrum. Sometimes picky eating is not related to sensory but to routines and fixations. My favourite example is Sheldon Cooper on the Big Bang Theory must have pizza from the same place “Grozianos” every Thursday night, no exceptions. But I am getting ahead of myself here. I would like to tell you about the picky eating, that I had in the past, as well as some food aversions that I have today, and how I overcame most of my food sensitivities.
When I was a baby and a toddler I ate just about anything that my parents and my babysitter fed me. It wasn’t until I was about three years old that my picky eating started. Foods that I used to be able to eat were no longer edible to me, foods like chicken pot pie and lasagna two foods that I used to beg my babysitter to make me would make me cringe if I even looked at it. The only way I would eat meat is if it was taken off the bones. This was often frustrating to my baby sitter because she didn’t know why I was doing this. On the plus side I still ate other foods that she served but eating foods made at the Day Care centre I went to for a short time was out of the question, mainly because it wasn’t the same food I was familiar with.
As I got older I developed even more food aversions. I could no longer eat old cheddar cheese, Kraff dinner or brown bread, just to name a few. If food wasn’t exactly the same as I was used to in smell, taste, texture and temperature, I couldn’t eat it. Being forced to try new foods was really scary for me throughout my childhood and would often result in a meltdown or a minor panic attack. Sometimes I would rather go hungry than eat foods that I hated and sometimes to avoid having people pester me to try something new I would fake an allergy to foods. To recall one incident when I wouldn’t eat a pepperoni pizza because it had parsley on it, otherwise I would have eaten it because pizza was a favourite food. My parents did help me overcome this problem by serving me foods that I didn’t think I would like and they told me that all I had to do was put it in my mouth and if I liked it eat it, but if I didn’t like it I could spit it out. This method seemed to work because in my preteens I started eating a lot more variety, things like meat lovers pizza, beef stew, shellfish, tacos and sweet pies, just to name a few.
Now that I have grown up I don’t have that many food aversions. The only foods I cannot eat under any circumstances are pasta, Jello, and baked beans. Just putting these in my mouth makes me panic and retch. If your child is a picky eater, here are a few tips.
- Realize that it is “normal” for young kids to go through a stage of picky eating. Kids with autism have extra-strong sensory abilities. That means the smells, tastes, textures and even the temperatures of foods are magnified much more for us than neurotypical people.
- Never force or bribe your child to eat any food.
- Have your child try the same method my parents tried with me. Have them at least put the unfamiliar food in their mouth and if they don’t like it they have the option to spit it out.
- Slowly expose a new food. Start with having a new smelling/tasting food on your plate.
- The next time you introduce a new food, put a small amount on their plate and tell them that they do not have to try it. The next few times the new food is served at a meal, if your child is in a good mood suggest that they smell it, and if they like the smell they just might try it.
- See your doctor or dietitian if you have any concerns about your child’s eating habits.
Do you have a child with autism that’s a picky eater? If so what things do you do to help them stay healthy? Let me know in the comments below. Until next time, “You’re awesome, take on the day.”
The Autism Speaks Canada blog features opinions from people throughout the autism community. Each blog represents the point of view of the author and does not necessarily reflect Autism Speaks Canada’s beliefs or point of view.