Food for Thought: Autism and Picky Eating

It’s a fact of life: Every parent has dealt with food preference issues at one time or another. The refrain, “This is a house, not a restaurant!” has, throughout time, become a common utterance at dinner tables around the world. But picky eating – called food selectivity – is a particularly significant hurdle for many kids with autism. If not properly addressed early on, food selectivity can develop into a lifelong issue with serious consequences.

Increasingly, mainstream medicine is recognizing the connections between the stomach and the brain. (See this article for more information.) For any child, and particularly for a child who is developmentally delayed, proper nutrition is critical to the child’s healthy growth.

At Positive Behavioral Connections, we see many children with food selectivity issues, and we can use behavioral means to help a child expand his or her diet. However, it’s important for us to point out that we are not dietary or nutritional experts. If picky eating is a problem for your child, please first seek medical advice from your child’s pediatrician to verify what constitutes a healthy diet for your child and  which foods your child should be eating more or less of. Once you’ve consulted a pediatrician or specialist to determine the foods you want to target – either to add to or remove from your child’s diet – we can work with your child to help accomplish those goals.

In dealing with food issues in children with autism, there are a number of common factors and challenges to keep in mind, including:

A child with free access to one preferred food will always go to that food – instead of the food you’re trying to replace it with.


-Pick a single food to restrict and a single food to replace.
-Respect that this will be difficult for your child, and do everything you can to help your child be successful.
-In small doses, increase the amounts of the preferred food you offer to your child, to replace the undesired food.
-Start small! Don’t offer the child a whole plate of broccoli right off the bat; try giving just a nibble first, and work your way up to larger portions.
-Be prepared for resistance. This will take time!
-For your own confidence and peace of mind, get your pediatrician on board with your plan. Some (not all) kids may go to extreme lengths to resist the new food, including hunger strikes; your doctor can help you understand how long a hunger strike can go on before you need to be concerned.

A child may not want to stay at the table or may insist on plugging into electronics at the dinner table.


-This is an issue worth addressing, but it needs to be addressed as a single issue. It shouldn’t be taught when you’re also introducing a new food, which is already a significant hurdle for your child.
-Try to make success as easy as possible by picking one behavior to focus on and celebrating the little victories in this one area.
-Remember, no matter what you want, the child has to be ready to learn in order for you both to experience success.

It’s important to make sure the other members of the family are modeling the desired behavior.


-If you want your child with autism to eat broccoli, then everyone in the family should be eating broccoli.
-Fair is fair; if the child can’t watch a video or play a game at the table, then Dad doesn’t get to have his iPhone at the table either.

Remember, all of this takes time. It’s a slow and steady change, but success will have an impact on the rest of the child’s life. When it comes to picking battles, picky eating is one worth picking!

Don’t get into a food fight alone! We can help with food selectivity issues. Contact us today to set up a meeting.



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