Help Your Child with Autism Have Fun with Food

This is a guest post by Melissa who has two children on the autism spectrum. She blogs about life with special needs children on Mutterings Of A Mindless Mommy. Follow her on Twitter @MommyMellie.

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Most parents have gone through that picky toddler stage with their child.  However, some kids seem to take the concept to a new level.  Others may still be dealing with a “picky toddler” when their child is seven or eight.  To parents who are dealing with one of these two issues, I say, “Welcome to my world.”

I have two children on the autism spectrum and extreme pickiness, oral defensiveness, decreased oral motor muscle tone and other similar issues have led to some unique (and at times frustrating) food challenges in our household.  When my oldest was two and three years old, well-meaning friends and family would tell me “oh, he’ll eat when he’s hungry.”  What they didn’t know is that no, he wouldn’t eat when he was hungry.  If the food being offered to him was not on his list of approved foods, it wouldn’t even be touched.

At two, my son had three or four foods that he would eat.  That is typical of two year-olds.  At three, he still had three or four foods that he would eat.  At four, he only ate two different foods with any regularity.  Finally, at age five, the list of foods began to expand.  Now he is seven and still only eats a handful of foods on a regular basis.  He won’t eat some food because of its color and other food because of its consistency.  If a food requires much in the way of chewing, he will forego it even if he likes the flavor.  His mouth muscles are weak and so the task of chewing food is tiresome for him.

However, looking back to how he was at four, we are happy with the variety of food that he eats now.  In case you find yourself in a similar situation, I wanted to share with you a few of the techniques that I used over the years to get him to try new foods and eventually move these new foods into the acceptable list.

Smoothies

I am sure that most parents of picky toddlers have tried the smoothie trick at least once.  You can pack many nutrients into one delicious-tasting smoothie.  It isn’t just the fruit or yogurt, but the extras that you can put in there that will make a difference with a super-skinny super-picky eater.

While making a smoothie, you can easily add in flax seeds, protein powder, etc.  We did all of those from time-to-time but the one item that I found the most tolerated, and most helpful, was coconut oil.  Coconut oil contains beneficial fat and protein – two things that were often missing in my son’s diet.  Coconut does have a distinct flavor but it blends in well with a fruit smoothie.

Food Van Goghs

Many children release their inner Van Goghs with a carrot stick and some finger paint.  While a picky toddler might not eat a raw carrot, the picky toddler with autism may not touch it or even allow it within ten feet of him.  Getting this child to actually touch the raw carrot is the first step in getting him to try a little bite.

You can do this at home – simply purchase a veggie tray and some finger paint.  Spread out several pieces of paper and show your child that the vegetables are there for something different.  Pick up a carrot and draw a smiley face.  Use a piece of broccoli to create a pattern.  Encourage your child to join in but never force him.  The purpose of this activity is to grow your child’s tolerance of the vegetable.  In the end, you may find that your child finds a favorite vegetable.  My son likes broccoli now.

Dip Baby Dip
Dips are a wonderful way to introduce new foods into any child’s diet, whether the child is on the autism spectrum or not.  In order for this to be successful, you need to let go of the traditional concept of dip.  Anything is dip.  That cup of organic baby yogurt, that’s dip.  Pulpy orange juice?  Yes, that can be dip too.  If your child is interested in dipping one item into something else, then let her experiment.

In our house, many new foods were discovered this way.  My daughter is now five and still dips her grape tomatoes into yogurt.  It sounds yucky to me but she’s eating fresh tomatoes.

Follow Your Child’s Cues

In my opinion, this is the most important part of overcoming extreme pickiness.  You absolutely need to follow your child’s cues.  Never force her to eat something, never make food an issue of reward and punishment and don’t make dessert contingent on dinner.  If dessert is part of the meal, then everyone should be allowed to eat dessert.

Many times parents have a hard time letting go of the traditional thought that a child who doesn’t eat dinner simply shouldn’t be allowed to eat dessert.  One way to get around this is to make sure that what you are serving for dessert is healthy and nutritious.  If dessert is delicious, homemade zucchini bread then you will know that your child is getting nutritional benefit from the dessert.

The ideas listed here are only a handful of ideas that myself and other parents of children with autism have tried over the years.  A child that has an aversion to smooth textures or cold food is not going to like a smoothie, no matter what you put into it.  You have to experiment to determine what works with your child and what doesn’t.  The key to this process is to have fun and let your child decide the direction your food experiments take.  Good luck!

4 comments

  1. Some great ideas.

  2. Some great ideas.

  3. Susan Jensen

    I am a speech pathologist working in an early intervention clinic primarily with two year olds. I have several with ASD. Introducing new foods to these kids with severly restricted diets is a major concern of parents. I appreciate hearing about the strategies that parents have found successful.

  4. Susan Jensen

    I am a speech pathologist working in an early intervention clinic primarily with two year olds. I have several with ASD. Introducing new foods to these kids with severly restricted diets is a major concern of parents. I appreciate hearing about the strategies that parents have found successful.

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