Overeating: why it happens in autistic children and teenagers
Overeating is when children eat too much. Some autistic children might graze all day, and some might eat too much at meals.
If your child has overeating habits, it’s good to work out why. This can help you manage your child’s eating behaviour.
Some children eat more because their medicine increases their appetite. Your child’s GP or paediatrician will be able to tell you if this is an issue for your child.
If there are no medical reasons, your child might be overeating for one or more of the following reasons:
- Habit: is your child snacking at particular times of the day? While watching TV? On the computer? When they don’t have anything else to do? Keeping a diary for a few days will help you see whether there’s a pattern to your child’s snacking.
- Obsessions with food: is your child’s overeating more than a habit? Your child might have an obsession with a particular food, which they can’t control. If your child overeats at mealtimes and wants an excessive amount of food, they might be showing signs of compulsive behaviour.
- Unpredictable mealtimes: if your child doesn’t have set mealtimes, they might be more likely to snack throughout the day.
- Sensory sensitivities: for example, if your child likes soft textures, they might regularly seek out soft foods and eat too much of them.
- Emotional regulation: for example, your child might eat more food when they’re feeling anxious or sad.
Our dietary guidelines can help you work out whether your child is getting the right portion sizes for their age: food for children 2-3 years, food for children 4-8 years, food for children 9-11 years, food for children 12-13 years and food for teens 14-18 years.
Managing overeating in autistic children and teenagers
The best strategies for autistic children and teenagers who overeat depend on what’s causing the overeating.
Overeating because of habits
- Keep ‘problem’ or snack foods out of reach. This can encourage your child to snack less. If your child is older, or particularly good at reaching hidden spaces, you might need to keep these foods out of your house.
- Have some of your child’s favourite activities handy to keep your child busy until it’s time for a regular meal or snack. This can be good if your child snacks when they’re bored.
- Encourage your child to do some physical activity as part of a balanced, healthy lifestyle. You could try making this part of your child’s daily routine, perhaps at a time of day when your child might otherwise want to snack.
Overeating because of compulsions
If you think your child’s overeating might be because of obsessions or compulsions, try to limit how much food you put on your child’s plate, and how much food is in sight.
Overeating because of unpredictable mealtimes
- Aim for regular mealtimes. This can help your child adjust to eating certain quantities of food at certain times. While your child is getting used to the new mealtime routine, it can help to have some low-fat, low-energy snacks handy, so that your child is neither too hungry nor too full at the next meal.
- Make sure that your child drinks plenty of water throughout the day, especially between mealtimes. Sometimes children think they’re hungry when they’re just thirsty.
Overeating because of sensory sensitivities
If your child seeks out sensory sensations, try to replace one sensory object (food) with another (non-food). For example, if your child likes the feeling of soft substances in their mouth, you could make time each day for your child to play with playdough with their hands instead.
Overeating because of emotions
If you think your child overeats as a way of regulating their emotions, you can help your child learn how to recognise, understand and manage their emotions in healthy ways.
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 finding it difficult to manage your child’s pica, speak to your child’s paediatrician or other health professional.
Getting help for overeating in autistic children and teenagers
If you’re concerned about your child’s weight or eating behaviour, it’s a good idea to talk with your child’s GP or paediatrician or a dietitian. They can also refer your child to other professionals like psychologists if your child needs extra help with their behaviour or emotions.