Food Selectivity in Children with Autism

Tuesday February 18, 2020 at 4:40 PM


In this month’s issue of Metro Parent Livonia’s Assistant Clinical Director, Helen Attar M.A., BCBA, provides families with advice to increase the diet of especially picky eaters. Helen explains that food selectivity is common for all children but can occur even more frequently among children with autism. Helen also explains first steps when considering whether to tackle this issue.

When a family decides it’s an appropriate time to being increasing the variety of foods their child eats, Helen suggests, “We want to make sure the child isn’t refusing a particular food because it causes him or her pain or discomfort as this could be the case if there is a food allergy or intolerance.” Because of these possible concerns it’s important that families contact their child’s pediatrician to rule out any medical conditions. The pediatrician can also help with the process by offering suggestions as to which foods the family could introduce first.

Once any medical concerns are ruled out, families and their therapy providers (e.g., BCBAs, Occupational Therapists, and Speech Pathologists) should create a plan for how they will begin introducing new foods. Helen explains, “We’re not going to introduce 50 foods all at once, we’ll start with one or two foods the family often eats during mealtime and celebrate any success—big or small—that the child achieves.” For some children, the sight of a non-preferred food can be enough to lead to challenging behaviors. We wouldn’t expect them to start eating these foods right away. Instead, Helen suggests using what we call in ABA a desensitization protocol. This may require, for example, that the child first look at the food, then touch the food, and eventually begin consuming it. The goal is to make small steps forward and avoid taking steps back.

This means, as Helen explains, “not sneaking foods into what your child is eating when conducting a feeding program.” By sneaking foods in, you might end up creating a distrust between you and your child when working on introducing foods in the future. Progress may be slow in the beginning, but as the child becomes more familiar with trying new foods, progress for future foods could potentially be faster. Helen emphasizes that it is best to start introducing new foods early because the longer a family waits, the harder it could be to expand the range of foods consumed in the future.

We are so fortunate to have clinicians like Helen who can offer a wealth of practical advice to parents. Issues such as feeding can be long-lasting and difficult for families to know how to begin. Having the right team and plan can make all the difference in the world. If you’re currently involved in ABA and have any questions about addressing your child’s food selectivity, contact your child’s BCBA for more specific advice and helpful strategies.

We hope you all are having a great week, and make sure to stay updated with all things Gateway by following us on social media and reading out weekly blogs!

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