Help for Picky Eaters
Many small children are fussy eaters, but youngsters on the autistic spectrum commonly take pickiness to extremes. They often eat fewer than five or so different foods - a list that generally includes things like crackers, chicken nuggets, fries, mac and cheese, cookies and milk. Most of their favorite foods contain gluten, casein or both.
Proponents of the opioid excess theory of autism contend that children on the autistic spectrum limit themselves to foods that contain gluten and casein because these proteins give them a “high” resembling that of opioid drugs.
The gluten-free, casein-free diet (GFCF diet) is gaining ground as effective therapeutic intervention for many with autistic disorders. It’s supported by several peer-reviewed studies, thousands of documented case studies and a number of well-funded research projects. By now, most parents have heard of the benefits of the GFCF diet but many feel that their picky offspring would surely starve if they go that route.
Why are so many children on the autistic spectrum picky eaters? They often have severe sensory disturbances, which impacts the way they experience food. These youngsters may make food choices based on a single characteristic. If their tactile sense is overly sensitive, foods of particular textures or temperatures are intolerable. If olfaction is overly acute, ordinary cooking smells may seem disgusting. An insensitive nose may mean that food simply is not appetizing. Appearance of food is critical for some children; it could taste awful but if the food looks right, these kids will eat it. For other children, the problem is the need for “sameness,” which causes them to eat only a few, familiar foods. Figuring out which food trait is limiting your child’s diet provides insight into ways to expand his or her menu.
Removing gluten and casein nearly always leads to improved health, as well as a spontaneous broadening of the diet. It can take weeks (even longer for older children), but once the offending proteins clear the system completely, most kids will try new foods and add many to their diet. Most parents who’ve been through this agree that it’s well worth the effort.
If your child’s severe tactile issues limit food choices, consider consulting an occupational therapist trained in sensory integration dysfunction. These professionals work to gradually increase a child’s tolerance to different textures, temperatures and smells. They can desensitize a child’s lips, mouth and palate, which helps the youngster eat a more normal diet.
For more information or to find an occupational therapist in your area, contact the American Occupational Therapy Association (aota.org).
Lisa Lewis, PhD, the mother of an adult child with autism, is cofounder of the Autism Network for Dietary Intervention (autismndi.com). She is author of The Encyclopedia of Dietary Intervention.