Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a complex neurodevelopmental condition characterized by a range of challenges with communication, social interaction, and behavior. It affects millions of children worldwide, with the level of severity varying greatly. Eating habits and dietary patterns in children with autism can also exhibit unique features and preferences.
While autism is primarily associated with these core symptoms, it affects other aspects of a child’s life, including their dietary patterns. The eating habits and dietary patterns of children with autism can lead to extra demands for parents and caregivers.
This article will delve into the eating habits and dietary patterns in children with autism, the typical and unusual eating behaviors commonly seen in autistic children, and ways to manage these needs while meeting their nutritional requirements.
What are the Eating Habits Of an Autistic Child?
Understanding the eating habits of a child with autism is like uncoding a specially made code. Autism manifests differently in each child, hence their eating habits is equally different.
For many autistic children, routines can be very helpful as they thrive on predictability, and mealtime is no exception. These children might insist on eating the same foods every day, following a rigid routine that gives them with a sense of security. It’s not uncommon for them to have specific plates, utensils, or even seats they prefer during meals.
Texture is another thing they are generally sensitive to when it comes to food. Some children may have heightened sensory sensitivities, making them to be very particular about the textures of foods. For instance, they might only eat foods with certain textures while avoiding anything they find too mushy or crunchy.
Another thing worthy of note when trying to understand their eating habits is sensory overload. Autistic children are highly sensitive to different kinds of sensory stimuli, such as bright lights, loud noises, or even smells. These sensitivities can also be displayed during mealtimes. When they can’t focus on their meals, their eating patterns can become unstable.
And the communication difficulties tend to complicate this problems. Non-verbal or minimally verbal autistic children might struggle to express their likes, dislikes, or discomfort with specific foods. Where parents are not sure what foods they find comforting, mealtimes can be stressful leading to frustration for both the child and their caregivers.
Read Also: Iron Rich Foods for Babies, Kids & Toddlers
What are Unusual Eating Habits In Children With Autism?
The label of “unusual” eating habits – habits in children with autism can vary greatly as most of them are “picky eaters“. While many kids might go through picky eating phases, autistic children take this habit to a whole new level.
They might stick to an extremely limited range of foods, sometimes known as “food jags,” where they eat the same meal over and over and this can last months or years.
Sensory sensitivities also come into play. For some autistic children, certain textures, tastes, or even the temperature of foods can be disturbing. As a result, they may avoid generally liked foods. Crunchy foods might be intolerable for some, while others might be unable to tolerate the textures of certain fruits or vegetables.
Food rituals and routines tend to be common too. These children may insist on a particular sequence of events during or before meals, such as arranging food in a specific order on their plate or eating one item at a time. Any deviation from these rituals can cause them discomfort.
At times, the connection between food and emotions can be quiet strong. Some autistic children may use food as a way to self-regulate or cope with emotional challenges. This can lead to overeating or a complete refusal to eat.
Do Autistic Children Have Food Preferences?
Almost all autistic children have food preferences and this is often due to their various sensitivities.
1. Sensory Sensitivities
The most common sensitivity that leads to food preferences in children with autism is the sensory sensitivity. It can make them less interested in certain textures, tastes or smells and accepting of softer textures or quieter smells.
2. Routine and Predictability
Routines give them comfort. If they learn to associate comforting routines with certain foods, it’s only expected that they would like those foods over others.
3. Limited Food Options
Many autistic children exhibit a limited repertoire of preferred foods, sometimes referred to as “food jags.” This limited food repertoire can be a cause of concern for caregivers, as it may lead to nutritional gaps in the child’s diet. To help increase their list of food jags, you can try to create calming routines before new meals.
Read Also: How to Prevent Picky Eating In Toddler
Managing Food Preferences in Autistic Children
Let’s look at some actionable ways to manage food preferences in children with autism.
1. Gentle Exposure to New Foods
Start with small, gradual introductions of new foods, and be patient while at it. You can use visual aids to help prepare them for the change.
2. Sensory-Friendly Mealtime Environment
Use utensils, plates, and cups that your child finds comfortable, and reduce sensory distractions like loud noises or strong smells during meals.
3. Maintain Routine with Little Changes
Respect the child’s need for routine while introducing new changes. Ensure that the changes are introduced in a way that feels safe and predictable for them.
4. Seek Professional Guidance
A professional can offer expert guidance on ways to address the possible nutritional deficiencies and limited food options.
5. Encourage Food Exploration
Celebrate small victories and milestone additions to their food jags. Make mealtime a positive and enjoyable experience.
Best Milk For An Autistic Child
Although milk is a common staple in many diets, it’s important to consider certain factors when choosing the best milk for an autistic child. Dietary sensitivities can impact their milk choices due to the discomfort caused. Some of these sensitivities include:
1. Lactose Intolerance
Some autistic children may have difficulty digesting lactose, which is the simple sugar found in milk. This can lead to digestive discomfort, gas, and diarrhea.
2. Casein Sensitivity
Casein is a protein present in milk, and some autistic children may be sensitive to it. They might experience digestive issues which can be reflected in behavior changes after consuming dairy products containing casein.
3. Sensory Preferences
Autistic children’s sensory sensitivities may affect their milk preferences. Some might prefer the taste or texture of one type of milk over another.
Having stated these sensitivities, let’s now look at the various milk options available and how suitable they can be for children with autism.
1. Cow’s Milk
Cow’s milk is a good source of calcium and protein. However, if your child is lactose intolerant or sensitive to casein, cow’s milk cannot be suitable for them.
2. Lactose-Free Cow’s Milk
Lactose-free cow’s milk is an option for children with lactose intolerance. It has the same nutrients as the regular cow’s milk but it’s free of lactose, hence it is easier to digest. If your child enjoys the taste of cow’s milk and doesn’t have issues with casein, this can be a suitable choice.
3. Goat’s Milk
Goat’s milk is an alternative to cow’s milk and is often easier to digest. It is also more tolerable.
4. Plant-Based Milk Alternatives
Plant-based milk alternatives have been gaining popularity and there are a range of options you can pick from.
- Almond milk is low in calories and can be a source of calcium if it is fortified. It has a mild, nutty flavor and a thin consistency which makes the texture appealing.
- Soy milk is a good source of protein and is often fortified with vitamins and minerals. It has a more neutral taste compared to almond milk.
- Coconut milk has a unique tropical flavor and can be used for recipes that align with its taste. Although, it does not have as much protein as soy or cow’s milk.
- Oat milk has a creamy texture and natural sweetness. It is a good source of fiber and is often fortified with vitamins and minerals.
5. Rice Milk
Rice milk is another plant-based milk alternative that is often preferred for its mild taste. Though, it is lower in protein compared to cow’s milk and soy milk. It also does not provide the same nutritional benefits unless it is fortified.
6. Homemade Nut or Seed Milk:
Making nut or seed milk at home can meet the need of the moment. These milk options can be nutritious if prepared carefully. It’s important to ensure it is properly fortified with essential nutrients during preparation before use.
Read Also: Soy Milk for Toddlers
Conclusion on: Eating Habits and Dietary Patterns In Children With Autism
To properly manage the nutrition of a child with autism, their eating habits and dietary patterns must be carefully understood. This would help create a meal plan or schedule that they are open to and welcoming of.
Also, when selecting foods that would be used in their meals like their milk for instance, considering their unique sensitivities will guide you on the choice to make.
These sources should be selected carefully so they can compensate for other nutritional gaps in their meal plan. In all, the child’s needs, preferences, and patterns should take the center stage in their meal planning and their meal rituals should revolve around what they find comforting.