Feeding a child with autism

Sensory difficulties, routine issues and social anxieties can make mealtimes awkward if your child has autism, so how can you help him to eat a balanced diet?

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Some children with autism and related disorders have behavioural issues which affect their eating. The two most common problems are restricted diets and overeating.

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Restricted diet

Children with autism can be extremely picky about what they eat. The reasons can include:

  • Sensory difficulties – for example, extreme sensitivity to tastes, smells or textures.
  • Anxiety about social interaction at mealtimes.
  • Routine issues: many children with autism are heavily dependent on routine, and even a small change such as using a different plate can be upsetting.
  • Physical issues such as difficulties chewing or swallowing.

If you’re concerned about the limitations in your child’s diet, it’s important to seek advice from your GP or paediatrician, who might suggest:

  • Keeping a food diary, writing down what your child eats and when to pinpoint the reasons why he may be refusing to eat.
  • Introducing new foods gradually – for example, encouraging your child to first look at a new food, then touch it, smell it, lick it, and so on over a course of days.
  • Rewarding your child for trying new foods, perhaps by using a sticker chart.

Overeating

Some children with autism are prone to overeating. Some research suggests that the part of the brain which tells us when we’ve eaten enough doesn’t function fully for people with autism. Other children with autism become obsessive about eating, and will eat for longer or more often than normal as part of their routine. Sensory issues can also lead them to crave particular foods.

If your child is overeating, your GP or paediatrician may advise:

  • Keeping a food diary, which may reveal a pattern to his overeating – for example, if he’s stressed or bored.
  • Controlling access to food, for example by using cupboard locks, limiting portion sizes and using smaller plates.
  • Using a visual rule chart to show your child what he can eat and when: for instance, you could have pictures of each day’s menu so he knows what to expect and when.

Getting help with your child’s diet

If your child has autism, there are a number of people who can help you deal with his dietary issues. Your GP or paediatrician should be your first port of call for a referral to any of these professionals.

  • A dietician can help you work on a balanced diet for your child.
  • A psychologist may be able to help with behavioural issues surrounding eating, using cognitive or behavioural therapies.
  • A speech and language therapist can help your child if he’s having difficulty chewing and swallowing.

Special diets for children with autism

According to the National Autistic Society, the jury is out on whether special diets or supplements can be helpful for children with autism, although many parents feel that these diets improve symptoms.

Gluten- and casein-free diet

Some studies have suggested that people with autism have difficulties digesting peptides – a substance found in gluten (present in wheat, grains and cereals) and casein (present in milk and dairy foods). Scientists think that these undigested peptides enter the bloodstream and affect behaviour, and that reducing your child’s intake of foods containing gluten and casein, like bread and milk, could improve the symptoms of autism. For the latest research on these diets, visit www.espa-research.org.uk

Fatty acids

Omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids are important for brain function, and studies suggest that deficiencies in these fatty acids (HUFAs) can contribute to autistic spectrum disorders. HUFAs are found in fish, seafood, nuts and seeds and green leafy vegetables, and you can also buy fish and non-fish oil based supplements from your pharmacist – although the evidence about the effectiveness of supplements is limited. If you do want to use a supplement, always follow the dosage guidelines.

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Always consult your GP before trying any special diet for your child. He may refer you to a dietician for specialist advice, or you can find a private dietician at Freelance Dietitians.

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