GrapevineJune/July 2009 Issue

Autistic Children with Picky Appetites

Expanding food choices for your autistic child.

All children can be fussy about what they eat but kids on the autistic spectrum are the ultimate picky eaters. They self-limit to such a degree that their diets can consist of less than a handful of items—usually white foods like French fries, noodles, chicken nuggets and milk.

Autistic Children

When my friend Betsy Hicks and her husband, parents of a child with autism, were traveling in Thailand, they learned that eating worms is part of that nation’s food culture. The experience gave them insight into their child’s strong resistance to trying new foods. My question to parents is this: What would it take for you to eat worms? For starters, you would have to be really hungry. Next, there would have to be no other options. And third, you would want to begin with just a tiny bite.


This is what it’s like for kids with autism. They are not stubborn, disobedient children. They are afraid of new foods due to heightened sensory issues and the fact that certain foods have made them feel sick in the past. Often they don’t have the verbal skills to do anything but reject what’s being offered.

So what’s a parent to do? Here are some suggestions. These tips can also help when transitioning your child to the gluten-free, casein-free diet.

  • Start Slowly. Don’t expect a diet switch to occur overnight. Begin with small changes, gradually introducing new foods while moving away from old favorites. Settle in for the long haul and be patient.     
  • Limit the Extras. A hungry child is more likely to try a new food than one who’s been snacking and drinking juice all day.

n Hide the Goods. Boost nutritional content by sneaking pureed vegetables or meat into homemade pancakes or chicken nuggets. (Place nuggets in a McDonald’s carton.) Be creative. If your child prefers smooth foods, puree chunky soups or casseroles. For a crispy texture, try broiling, frying or grilling foods.

  • Use Rewards. Offer a bite of a favorite food following a taste of a new food.
  • Make It Fun. Serve food on colorful plates and in kid-friendly containers.
  • Be Consistent. Don’t make mealtime a power struggle. Stay calm. Don’t compromise on good nutrition to ward off a tantrum.
  • Watch Yourself. Model the eating behavior you want to instill in your child. Be open to new tastes and cuisines. Maintain a positive attitude. Embrace what your child can eat and don’t focus on deprivation.   

Children with autism often prefer foods that are high in refined sugar, white flour and artificial additives, the very foods that aggravate symptoms. Many additives are more than toxic; they are also addictive. That’s why it’s well worth the effort to broaden your child’s culinary horizons and boost his nutritional intake. For all children, but particularly for kids on the autism spectrum, the proper food is good medicine. LW

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