Autism Picky Eaters: 7 Tips to Solve Feeding Problems

Are you struggling with picky eating? You aren’t alone. Many kids between 18 and 24 months struggle with selective eating, but autism picky eating is something that is often ongoing past the age of 7. 

In this episode, I focus on addressing picky eating in children, especially those with autism or speech delays. It is estimated that between 50 and 89 percent of children with autism struggle with some level of picky eating. 

So join me today as I cover the 7 tips you need to help your picky eater.

YOU’LL LEARN

  • What causes picky eating?
  • Is it picky eating or something more?
  • The link between autism and picky eating
  • Picky eating and failure to thrive
  • 7 tips to solve picky eating

What Causes Picky Eating? 

Picky eating, especially for those with autism or speech delays can be caused by a number of factors, or a combination of these factors. Today, I will go over some assessments you can do to help identify what is causing picky eating for your child with autism and how to get started. 

autism picky eating causes. picky eater. autism picky eater
Pain, sensory issues, and motor deficiencies can all impact a picky eater.

Some factors that may cause autism picky eating include;

Sensory Issues- Wanting food to look a certain way, feel a certain way, and taste a certain way can make feeding time a struggle for children with autism. 

I once had a client who was almost fully conversational but was only eating baby food.

Pain- Checking a child’s mouth for sores or dental pain can be a good place to start with picky eating.

Children with autism may also experience GI issues, and constipation leading to pain which then can effect eating. Talking to your medical provider is a good first step. 

Delayed Oral Motor Function- Often when you have a child with autism struggling with picky eating, you will also have a problem with talking. You may even see that they struggle to drink from an open cup or straw cup. 

Starting with weaning from a bottle or sippy cup and focusing on building language skills can be helpful with picky eating and autism. 

Autism Picky Eater

There is a significant link between picky eating and autism, with research indicating that extreme picky eating is much more common in children with autism compared to their typically developing peers.

A study by Mays and Zikgraf in 2019 found that atypical eating behaviors, such as severely limited food preferences and refusal of different textured foods, occur in about 70% of children with autism—15 times more frequently than in typically developing children.

These eating challenges can emerge as early as one year old and often serve as a diagnostic indicator for autism. Understanding this link is crucial for parents and professionals, as addressing picky eating behaviors early on can lead to improvements in other areas, such as speech and overall development.

Concerns with Picky Eating 

In a podcast interview I did with Dr. Keith Williams he shared that picky eating is the main cause of a resurgence in eating disorders. At his feeding clinic, they are even seeing signs of scurvy in some autism picky eaters. 

Failure To Thrive

Picky eating can sometimes be a sign of more serious underlying issues, such as failure to thrive.

Failure to thrive is characterized by a child’s weight, height, and head circumference not progressing as expected for their age, often falling below the third percentile on growth charts or being 20% below the ideal weight for their height.

This condition can stem from extreme picky eating, leading to inadequate nutrient intake and insufficient calorie consumption.  If a child’s growth curve starts to decline, and they show signs of malnutrition or severe weight loss, it’s essential to seek medical evaluation and a behavioral feeding clinic. 

How to Solve Picky Eating?

Handling a picky eater with or without autism is a daunting task, but with these 7 easy tips, we can get started with turning autism picky eating around. 

As discussed above, if you are seeing failure to thrive or signs of a serious nutrient deficiency, it is best to speak to a medical professional or behavioral feeding clinic. 

autism picky eater. how to help picky eating.
Solving autism picky eating isn’t easy but you can start helping your picky eater with 7 simple tips.

1. Picky Eating Assessments

When first beginning support a child with picky eating, we want to assess what is going on. Two assessments I recommend are the Barbera Early Childhood Assessment™ and a food diary. 

Barbera Early Childhood Assessment™- I created this tool as a free, fast way to get an overview of a child’s strengths and needs. The assessment will go over language, learning skills, problem behaviors, feeding and other self care skills. 

When there are eating issues there are often other language skills and skills we will need to work on at the same time. 

Food Diary- 

For three days, write down everything your child eats. If it’s 10 chips, four ounces of 2 percent milk, write it down and be as specific as possible.  This will help you (and your child’s doctor or nutritionist) get a quick glimpse of what is happening and you can calculate how many calories your child is getting.  Also, if they only eat certain foods or drink only milk or only water, it could also give clues as to what nutrients might be deficient.

This food diary assessment may also help you determine the approximate calories your child is consuming. The food diary is a great resource to share with your medical professional. 

2. Deciding What To Feed a Picky Eater

Knowing what to feed your picky eater, or how to start with changing their eating style can be one of the hardest parts of tackling autism picky eating. That is why I created an easy, medium, hard food list. 

The easy, medium, and hard food list is a practical tool for managing picky eating in children.

To create this list, you categorize foods into three columns based on your child’s eating preferences and behaviors.

The “easy” column includes foods your child eats willingly and without fuss, often comprising familiar and favorite items.

The “medium” column lists foods your child occasionally eats or will eat under certain conditions, such as when they are very hungry or in a good mood.

Finally, the “hard” column contains foods your child consistently refuses, which might include new foods, certain textures, or less preferred items.

By organizing foods this way, parents and professionals can strategically introduce new foods, starting with those in the medium column, and gradually working towards the hard ones, ensuring a more positive and less stressful eating experience.

This method helps to slowly expand a child’s diet while minimizing resistance and frustration.

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If we limit hard and medium food when first tackling autism picky eating, we can limit fights at the table.

3. Stop Snacking and Grazing Between Meals

Tip 3 emphasizes the importance of stopping grazing and snacking between meals to improve autism picky eating habits in children.

Allowing children to graze or snack throughout the day can reduce their hunger and willingness to try new or less preferred foods at mealtimes. All foods and drinks with calories should be kept to the table and meal time.

To implement this strategy, ensure that all snacks and meals are eaten at a designated table, avoiding the habit of eating while walking around, watching TV, or sitting on the sofa.

You may need to provide extra reinforcement at the feeding table such as a favorite song or toy to promote the table as a good place to be.

This structured approach helps children associate eating with mealtime, fostering better eating habits and reducing picky behaviors.

By limiting snacking, especially one hour before and after meals, children are more likely to arrive at the table hungry and ready to eat a balanced meal. This not only encourages healthier eating patterns but also creates a more positive and focused eating environment.

4. Swap-in Nutrient Dense Food

Autism picky eaters are often facing nutrient deficiencies. If a child has vegetables or fruits on their easy lists, we want to be offering these as much as possible. 

If your child likes crackers, trying to introduce similar crackers that may have better ingredients can be a good place to start. 

Smoothies for children who are stuck on mushy foods or baby foods can be beneficial. 

5. Consistent Feeding Schedule

Having a consistent meal schedule, helps you to be consistent for a picky eater. Knowing that meal time and snack time will happen at predictable times can stop grazing, and promote a sense of hunger so that you can provide thoughtful snacks and meals vs. quick on-the-go options as often as possible. 

We want to limit snacks outside of designated snack time and meal time.

Snacks should not be consumed within one hour of mealtime. 

6. Limit Calorie Dense Drinks to Meal Times

Similar to not wanting a picky eater to wander around and eat, we also want to limit them walking around with drinks like milk and juice. 

Picky eaters should have access to water at all times of the day but we don’t want to allow them to fill up on calorie-dense drinks instead of eating nutritious meals. 

7. Begin Introducing New Foods for Picky Eaters

Once a child is happily sitting at the table for snacks and meals, you can move on from foods on your easy list. 

Begin looking at giving variations of items on the child’s easy list and slowly introducing medium foods. 

Staying calm, and going slow with this process is key for helping autism picky eaters. 

Autism Picky Eater Key Takeaways

  • I would recommend three feeding assessments:  1)  the BECA digital assessment, 2) a three-day food diary, and 3) creating an easy, medium, and hard list.
  • Have all meals, snacks, and drinks with calories (except for water) at a table, making snacks and meals as nutritious as possible, and work with your child to ease in harder foods along the way.
  • Remember that if your child is having eating problems, he’s probably also having issues with talking, following directions, imitation, playing, and maybe having a lot of problem behaviors too.
  • The best way to start tackling these other issues is by taking my free digital assessment, which can be found at MaryBarbera.com/assessment

 

Share this episode with others who might benefit and I’ll see you right here next week.

 

 

 

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