Stefanie Valakas, Dietitian, Baulkham Hills NSW
2 April 2019
Feeding and eating concerns is not often the first thing that comes to mind when families receive an Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) diagnosis. However, many young children with ASD experience issues with food, eating and mealtimes which affects their growth & development and overall wellbeing.
In practice, I quite often see families with young children with ASD struggle to get their child to incorporate a variety of foods into their diet, leaving parents concerned their child simply is not getting everything they need.
It is strongly recommended that you seek medical and dietetic advice, if you are at all concerned about your child’s health and/or nutritional status.
Here are some of my top tips to help young children with ASD improve their nutrition in both the short and long-term.
Try to understand your child’s sensory preferences
We all have our individual sensory preferences, perhaps we like strongly flavoured food and for things to be served hot. However, your child may prefer blander foods that are served room temperature or cold. It’s important to think about the following factors when planning meals and what your preferences are, your child’s preferences are and what other members of the family like. Consider:
- Noise at mealtimes
Pair familiar or “safe” foods with new foods with similar sensory properties
This helps link a similar food with a new food based on a common sensory property (e.g. colour). Say your child enjoys eating small white/brown round shaped crackers, selecting a different cracker with the same visual appearance but made of a different grain (e.g. rice), might be a just right stretch for your child to incorporate a new type of food.
Eventually, you can build this up to link less and less similar foods to help expand your child’s dietary repertoire.
Check for nutritional deficiencies
If you’re concerned your child is not eating enough nutrient-dense foods and may be lacking in vitamins and minerals, speak to your GP and paediatrician about getting some testing done to check in on your child’s micronutrient status. This can be particularly useful before seeing a dietitian, who can then help you with food-based and supplementation strategies to help rectify any deficiencies.
Research has shown that children diagnosed with ASD are more likely to have nutrient deficiencies.
Try & try again
It can take at least 10 times for a child presented with a new food to interact with it, touch, blow, kiss, smell or lick a new food. It will be messy and you’ll definitely need some patience, however, this strategy of consistent exposure is effective – so keep at it!
You can also try presenting the same food in a variety of ways. For example carrot: grated, sliced into rounds, cut into sticks, grated into frittata, pureed into a dip.
Stay calm at mealtimes
For a positive and successful mealtime, do your best to leave your stress away from the dinner table and aim to speak about pleasant topics with your family at the table. Show your children how you would like them to eat, ensuring you also include the foods they are eating on your plate too.
If things go wrong, stay calm and finish up the mealtime on a positive note!
There are no scientifically proven diets for children with ASD
Despite the popularity of a number of different diets, there is no research to show the efficacy (and safety) of these dietary protocols for children with ASD. If you child already has a limited dietary repertoire and you’re thinking of starting one of these diets, please speak to our paediatric dietitian beforehand.
We know a diet focused on variety and including grains, fruits, vegetables, protein rich foods, dairy and minimising the extra foods like biscuits, chocolate, crisps, hot chips and processed meats, soft drinks and juices is a great start to help nourish all children.
Got a question about nutrition for your child with ASD? Get in touch with Stefanie, our paediatric dietitian to help you answer your questions.
Dietitian, Baulkham Hills NSW
Stefanie has a strong interest and passion for paediatric nutrition, with a focus on creating positive behaviours and habits around food from childhood leading to a positive relationship with food in adulthood. Stefanie also has an interest in perinatal and fertility nutrition and general nutrition support across the ages and works with a wide range of nutritional concerns, assisting individuals and families to navigate the confusing world of nutrition successfully.