Fussy eating habits: why they happen in autistic children and teenagers
Some autistic children and teenagers have fussy eating or selective eating habits. This means children eat only a limited range of food.
If your child has fussy eatings habits, it’s good to understand why. This can help you manage your child’s eating behaviour.
Some autistic children’s fussy eating habits are caused by gastrointestinal problems. So it’s always best to speak with your child’s GP or paediatrician if your child has gastrointestinal symptoms, like slow weight gain or growth, diarrhoea or tummy pain.
If tummy problems aren’t the cause, the selective eating might be because your child:
- has sensory sensitivities and prefers food with particular textures
- likes routines and wants the same food at the same time every day
- is more focused on how food looks than how it tastes and wants the food presented in the same way every day
- finds it hard to try new experiences, including eating new food
- has become preoccupied with a particular type of food.
Working on fussy eating in autistic children: why it’s important
Your child needs a variety of fresh, healthy foods for good health and development, so it’s important to work on fussy eating. Also, your child’s fussy eating is unlikely to go away or change by itself, so ignoring the behaviour probably won’t work.
But forcing your child to eat a new food can make things worse, because your child might refuse to eat altogether. So it’s almost always best to use strategies that encourage a varied diet and help your child gradually get comfortable with new foods.
Your child needs a wide variety of fresh foods from the five healthy food groups – vegetables, fruit, grain foods, dairy or dairy-free alternatives and protein. You can find out more in our articles on healthy food for preschoolers, healthy food for school-age children and healthy food for teenagers.
How to handle fussy eating and encourage varied diets for autistic children
Try not be discouraged if you don’t see improvements in your child’s fussy eating habits or diet at first. Finding new foods that work for your child can take time. Also, your child’s preferences might change and they might be more willing to try different foods as they get older.
Here are some ways you can encourage your child to start trying new foods.
When you share regular meals and snacks with your child, you model healthy eating habits and a varied diet for your child. You also avoid rewarding fussy eating behaviour with separate or special meals. When you’re using this approach, give your child food that you know they’ll eat as well as new foods, and let your child decide whether they want to try the new food.
Introduce new foods that are similar to familiar foods
If your child finds change difficult, your child might take a while to get comfortable with new foods.
You can help your child to accept new foods by introducing foods that have a similar texture, colour or smell to other foods that you know your child enjoys. Try putting the new food near the food that they like. For example, if your child won’t try broccoli, you could try putting the broccoli near some cauliflower. You could also let your child sniff or lick the broccoli to get used to the look, feel and smell of it. Just let your child know that they don’t have to eat the broccoli.
You might have to do this over several meals before your child is willing to even take a bite of the new food.
Keep to a routine
Offer your child meals and snacks at regular times. This encourages a better appetite at mealtimes. Also, regular meals and snacks sends the message that healthy eating is part of your family’s routine.
Change how you present food
Making small changes to the way you present food might encourage your child to try new and more foods over time. For example, you could try:
- putting food on a different colour plate
- putting a healthy snack in a favourite lunch box.
Getting comfortable with new food outside meal times
If you can introduce new foods away from the kitchen or the family table, it can reduce the pressure your child might feel about having to try new foods. For example, you could try:
- visiting the supermarket or grocery store together to look at different foods
- looking at pictures of different foods
- looking at recipes and preparing meals together
- exploring new foods through play – for example, by squashing, painting, stacking or smelling.
As your child becomes more comfortable with new foods in these contexts, you can start introducing new foods at the table.
Limit milk drinks
Some autistic children have a habit of drinking milk from a bottle rather than eating food. This means they might not get enough iron. If you limit the number of milk drinks your child has each day, it can help your child eat more.
Some autistic children will mouth or eat non-food items, like dirt, hair, coins, soap or fabric. This is called pica. You could try replacing non-food items with snacks, and praise your child whenever they choose a food item rather than a non-food item. If you’re struggling to manage your child’s pica, speak to your child’s paediatrician or other health professional.
Getting help for fussy eating in autistic children and teenagers
If your child eats in a very selective or restrictive way or seems to have a small or reduced appetite, they might not be getting the nutrients they need. It’s a good idea to talk with your child’s GP or paediatrician or a dietitian. And it’s always best to talk with one of these professionals if you think you need to supplement or significantly change your child’s diet.