• Ashley Musial

How to Overcome Meal Time Challenges

Meal time can be a challenging time for kids with autism. From meal-related tantrums to ritualistic eating behaviors, kids with ASD can experience a range of problems. In fact, a study by Penn State University found that 70% of kids with Autism Spectrum Disorder have unusual eating behaviors, which is 15x higher than among kids who are neurotypical.

Here’s a quick look at some of the most common eating-related challenges that you may be facing—along with some helpful tips about how to address them. (Keep in mind that your child may be engaging in these meal time behaviors because it enhances the feeding experience. You should only consider changing behaviors that produce barriers to healthy living, other preferred activities, or social interaction. Rituals lacking social significance can be left alone.)

Challenge: Your child is a picky eater.

Solution: Take things step-by-step.

Research suggests that the average kid who is a picky eater may need to taste a new food 12 times or more before they feel comfortable eating it. And for kids with autism, it can take even longer. So approach meal time with patience, and expect that introducing new foods will be a work in progress. Start by asking your child to simply touch the new food or to play with it, with no pressure to eat the food. Over time, through increased familiarity, they may open up to taking a small bite and eventually, eating that food as part of their normal diet.

Challenge: Your child seems to have more gastrointestinal problems than usual.

Solution: Consider a GFCF diet — after talking to a doctor.

Many parents report that their kids with autism are more sensitive to gluten, casein and other common food ingredients. A link between autism and food allergies has not been definitively proven, but some studies suggest that switching to a GFCF (gluten-free, casein-free) diet can not only alleviate gastrointestinal problems, but also reduce other behavioral symptoms and improve speech. Talk to your child’s physician before making any dietary changes, and ask if allergy testing is needed based on your child’s eating habits.

Challenge: Your child objects to other people eating foods that he or she doesn't like.

Solution: Engage your child in "tolerance training."

Some of the biggest challenges for kids with ASD are to follow social rules and to stay flexible. Occasionally, these challenges can converge at meal time and cause a child to loudly object or even throw a tantrum because someone at the table is eating a food they wouldn’t eat themselves. But you can help change that mindset with tolerance training. Start by having him or her request for you not to eat that specific food. About 90% of the time, you should comply with their request. But the other 10% of the time, you’ll eat the food anyway. As they learn to tolerate you eating the food on a rare occasion, bump the percentages to 80/20, then 70/30, and so on, until your child is comfortable with foods that others are eating. When possible, praise siblings and peers for eating unpreferred foods in the presence of your child. You may even provide reinforcement in other forms, such as treats, extra screen time or another reward they like. Appropriate reinforcement is always key!

Challenge: Your child insists on carrying out certain rituals while eating, like only eating from a certain container.

Solution: Investigate your child's preferences and introduce them to "tolerance training."

Kids with autism usually like rituals. And while rituals are fine at many times of the day, applying them to meals can create socially unwanted behaviors, keep kids from enjoying new foods, and prevent them from getting the nutrients that they need. If your child only eats out of a particular container, try to understand what it is about the container that he or she likes. Maybe it’s the color, shape, or texture, or maybe your child prefers the container because it has functional value. For example, if it has a lid, they may like the container because the food is less likely to fall out. If it doesn’t have a lid, maybe access to the food is easier. Try changing one feature at a time to expand the containers that your child will accept, like a container with a flexible lid instead of a snapping lid. Similarly, you can try a bowl that’s the same shape but a different color.

If you’ve experienced any of these meal time problems—or maybe one we haven’t covered—eating a meal with your child may feel stressful and even hopeless. But not to worry. ABA therapy can address these issues along with other behavioral challenges, and make meal time the family bonding experience that it’s meant to be. Your therapist can also help explain the concept of reinforcement, which makes all of the techniques above even more effective.

To learn how ChildFirst Behavior Therapy can help your child, contact us today.

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