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Autism: Nutrition challenges and tips from a Dietitian

For children and teens with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), a nutritious, balanced diet can make a world of difference in their ability to learn, how they manage emotions and how they process information. Because children with Autism often avoid certain foods or have restrictions on what they eat, as well as difficulty sitting through mealtimes, they may not be getting all the nutrients they need. If you have a picky eater with autism, know that you are not alone.

4 common challenges that hinder nutrition in people with Autism

Children with autism are more likely to face mealtime challenges, such as extremely limited food selections, ritualistic eating behaviours and meal-related tantrums. As every Autistic person is different to every other, some of these common challenges may not apply to your child or teen.

Limited food choices and strong food dislikes

Individuals with Autism can experience sensory issues (for example, increased sensitivity to light, touch, sound and taste). Hence, some will find it difficult to eat certain foods and result in consuming a very limited diet. Common dislikes include strongly flavoured foods, fruits and vegetables. They may refuse or even completely avoid some foods and even whole food groups.

Some examples of this include:

Having strong preferences for certain textures e.g. crunchy foods

  • Preference for a particular brand of food

  • Preference for ‘brown’ or ‘beige’ foods e.g. nuggets, white bread, biscuits

  • Preference for food prepared in a certain way e.g. bread cut in triangles instead of squares

  • Refusing certain foods to touch on a plate

  • Always wanting consistent and predictable foods

Insufficient food intake

Those with autism may have difficulty focusing on one task for an extended period of time, this may make it hard for them to sit down and finish a meal from start to finish. This can lead to not consuming enough energy and nutrition to meet their needs for healthy growth and development.

Digestive Issues

Gastrointestinal problems may be caused by several factors, including restricted food choices, low physical activity levels or side effect of medications. Gut problems such as constipation, diarrhoea and a bloated stomach are often seen in autistic people. Any gastrointestinal symptoms should be managed in the same way as in those who are not autistic. Reach out to your Doctor and Dietitian.

Medication interactions

Some stimulant medications used with autism can lower appetite. This can reduce the amount of food a child eats, which may affect growth. However, other medications may increase appetite or affect the absorption of certain vitamins and minerals. If your child takes medication, consult your healthcare provider about possible side effects.

How to improve nutrition in autistic children

Be prepared for fussy eating

Try not to 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 will take time. Your child’s preferences may change and they might be more willing to try different foods as they get older.

Many children need to taste a food more than a dozen times before they’re willing to eat it without a fuss, although children with ASD can take longer. Be patient as your child explores and tries new food.

Most importantly, avoid turning mealtimes into a family battleground, as this will negatively impact a child’s relationship with food.

Get comfortable with food outside of mealtimes

One of the easiest ways to approach sensory issues is to tackle them outside of the kitchen.

Some ideas include:

  • Visiting the supermarket together and choose a new food

  • Research it together on the Internet to learn about where it grows

  • Looking at pictures of different food together

  • Prepare it a new food together, without putting pressure for them to eat it

Simply becoming familiar with new foods in a low-pressure, positive way eventually can help your child become a more flexible eater.

Stick to regular, routine mealtimes

A child with ASD may find it harder at mealtimes, as a busy kitchen with bright lights and strong smells all act as potential stressors. Making meals as predictable and routine as possible can help.

Some ideas include:

  • Serving meals and snacks at the same time every day

  • Dimming lights, using lamps with adjustable lighting instead of a bright overhead light

  • Allowing your child pick a favourite food to include at every meal

  • Let your child choose a favourite seat at the table.

Slow, gradual changes at a time

If your child finds change difficult, your child might take a while to get comfortable with new foods. Some ideas include:

  • 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. E.g. if your child won’t try broccoli, you could try putting the broccoli near some cauliflower

  • Allow your child sniff or lick a food to get used to the look, feel and smell of it

  • You might have to do this over several meals before your child is willing to even take a bite of the new food.

Make food fun!

Playing with a new food is another way to build familiarity and decrease mealtime anxiety. While you’re playing, let your child see that you also taste and enjoy the food.

Some ideas include:

  • Painting with pasta sauce on a plate

  • Using vegetables to make faces on a pizza

  • Using cookie cutters to cut sandwiches into fun shapes

  • Stacking burgers together

  • Putting foods on a plate with the child’s favourite cartoon character

How can a Dietitian help people with Autism?

Consulting with a Dietitian before making drastic changes to your child's diet is crucial, as there can be side effects and potential nutrient deficiencies when a restricted diet is self-prescribed, including weight loss and stunted growth. Restrictive diets (such as the gluten or casein free diet) require careful planning to make sure your child's nutrition needs are being met.

An Accredited Practising Dietitian can:

  • Assess if your diet is providing adequate nutrition to meet your needs

  • Identify nutritional risks based on your current diet

  • Provide advice on the use of nutrition supplements

  • Give practical tips and tricks to help reduce anxiety and stress at meal times

  • Provide advice and guidance on ways to introduce new foods

  • It is important to seek guidance from a health professional before starting and special diets.

More help and support

Having an autistic child or sibling can be a challenging experience at times. However, there are support services available. Receiving appropriate support will allow those with ASD to enjoy equal opportunity, and a full and effective participation in society. The organisations listed below can help you find support groups and resources:


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