All parents are concerned about their children receiving proper nutrition as they grow, but, sometimes kids aren’t as excited about eating healthful foods as their parents would like them to be. This can result from a variety of reasons, including taste, smell, color, mouthfeel, and indigestion, or they may just be asserting their independence.
Children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) may be particularly sensitive to sensory aspects of foods, and they may even have some food sensitivities that can cause physical discomfort from constipation, abdominal cramping, or vomiting. These factors can make it more difficult for them to get proper nutrition.
According to Autism Speaks, autism or ASD refers to “a broad range of conditions characterized by challenges with social skills, repetitive behaviors, speech, and nonverbal communication.” The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that 1 in 59 children is affected by ASD.
Children with ASD may display intense dislikes for many foods and only agree to eat a limited selection. Depending on those foods, it’s likely that many nutrients necessary for healthy growth and development will be missing.
While ASD research is ongoing, it’s generally accepted that a nutritious diet can improve children’s abilities to learn, manage their emotions, and process information.
While it may be tempting for parents to simply allow their children to eat only a few particular foods, they should try to encourage them to eat more nutritious options. This is a natural place for RDs to step in to develop meal plans that will meet each child’s particular needs. An allergist or other health care provider can test for food allergies that may be causing some of the child’s food aversions. And RDs can conduct the most appropriate elimination diet to identify foods or groups of foods that are causing digestive problems.
In addition to clinical testing, RDs should suggest strategies families can adopt at home to reduce children’s resistance to healthful food consumption. Some approaches that may help mealtimes run more smoothly are outlined below.
RDs can suggest parents engage children in the entire process of meal planning, starting with a trip to the grocery store. Allowing children to choose their own foods, especially fruits and vegetables, often boosts their interest in eating them. Once a child has chosen a food, involve them in researching the food and how to best prepare it. If appropriate for the child’s age and/or developmental stage, encourage parents to allow children to help with meal preparation. If children still don’t want to eat it, parents should remain calm. Arguing or attempting to force a child to eat certain foods usually makes the situation worse. The simple act of learning about new foods and how they’re prepared eventually can help children to accept new foods more easily and in their own time.
Many children with ASD thrive on routines, providing parents with the opportunity to make mealtimes enjoyable, involving the entire family. Advise parents to reduce distractions by turning off the television and putting toys away. When the meal is ready, suggest parents serve it at the same place with everyone sitting in the same seats as previous meals. If bright lights stress the child, families can dim the lights or even eat by candlelight. Parents should aim to include one of the child’s favorite foods at each meal and let them choose from a variety of foods served family style.
If it’s determined that a child has food sensitivities, RDs must recommend a special diet to limit or exclude these foods. Children with ASD often are prescribed gluten-free or casein-free diets, but RDs should suggest these only if a sensitivity or allergy has been identified, as restrictive diets may lead to nutrient deficiencies. If a special diet is beneficial for a child, RDs should stress the importance of families sticking to it. Straying from the plan and including foods that should be eliminated may lead to digestive discomfort, exacerbating mealtime struggles.
As with all clients, it’s essential for RDs to listen to parents’ and children’s desires, needs, and limitations to determine the best options for not only adequate nutrition but also enjoyable and stress-free family meals.
— Laura Bollinger, MS, RD, LDN, EP-C, is the founder of LauraB Life, LLC, providing optimal health coaching and consulting services. She specializes in plant-based nutrition helping clients break free from the diet roller coaster to achieve lifelong optimal health. She loves creating simple meals and recipes to share with others and has been featured in Food & Nutrition Magazine. Laura is also an adjunct professor at Indiana University and the nutrition and exercise expert for Christian Care Ministry’s Healthy Living blog. Follow her @LauraB.Life on Instagram and Facebook.