3 Ways to Conquer Mealtime with an Autistic Child
Being the parent of an autistic child, you may have realized that mealtime can be the toughest time of the day. No worries; you are not alone. Many parents who have autistic children run into the same situation. There are different challenges a child might face when it comes to mealtime, and those include but are not limited to:
- Difficulties in expressing their food preferences or their feelings during meal time due to potential language delays
- Problems with sensory processing, which would affect their ability to take in the smells, tastes, sounds, textures, or even colors of certain things in their environment
- Difficulties with self-regulation of caloric intake. This concern could unintentionally lead to weight loss and malnourishment, and also weight gain and obesity.
Now you may be wondering, “Ok, so what can I do about this”? There are many ways to conquer this challenging time of the day but here are just a few ways that have been proven by experts to be efficient and effective.
1. Gradually expose your child to new foods and textures.
Just like autism is a spectrum, so are the different feelings each child feels when it comes to food. Sometimes, a child can express their dislike for a specific food through fear, because that is the only way they know how to communicate it. Some children are afraid of textures of certain foods, and some fear just the color of those foods. This fear is due to their possible difficulties with sensory processing, as mentioned above. To overcome this obstacle, it is crucial for the parent(s) or caregiver(s) to slowly introduce them to foods that they seem to be afraid of.
Take Moira Pena, for example. Pena is an Autism Speaks Autism Treatment Network (ATN) therapist. One of the children she worked with had an extreme fear of touching apples because they looked “wet.” Pena began introducing apples to this child by just having him look at the apple for a few minutes while guaranteeing that he did not have to eat it. After becoming comfortable with that exercise, she then moved on to having him touch the apple, first with a fork, then a napkin, and finally his fingers. All of these small, but essential steps helped him overcome what had once been a real fear in this child’s mind.
2. Reduce anxiety that leads up to mealtime.
Depending on whether or not a child has had bad or good experiences with mealtime, they might develop a sense of unease when it’s almost time for a meal. When experiencing this, a child may refuse food due to possible sensory aversions or fear of unfamiliar foods. However, forcing them to eat when they do not seem to want to may inadvertently make the anxiety worse.
There are many different activities parents can do to with their child to reduce their anxiety levels before it is time to eat. These can include, but are not limited to:
- Wrapping up in a blanket.
- Deep breathing exercises for about five minutes - blowing pinwheels or bubbles, or even just slowly and deeply inhaling for a count of four, and then slowly and fully exhaling for a count of seven or eight.
- “Deep pressure tactile exercise” - Pushing hands against a wall or having your child push their palms of their hands against yours (Pena 2015).
3. Make mealtime a routine.
Because of an autistic child’s difficulty with self-regulation of caloric intake, it is important that
he or she knows when they should be eating and when they should not be eating. Children with autism may have trouble sensing the internal signals of hunger, so they may base it off of how long they sit at the dinner table, or just basing their hunger off of the presence of food in front of them. If they sit too long, the child(ren) may feel as though they have eaten enough, even if they have not, and if they base hunger off of the presence of food, the child(ren) may eat something in front of them even if they are not hungry. Making a schedule for snacks and meals and sticking to it is an excellent way for children to realize when they should eat, even if they do not feel hungry, or when they should not eat, even if they think they are hungry.
When working with an autistic child, it is imperative to understand that autism occurs on a spectrum. Not every child will have the same experiences as outlined above, but this blog serves as a foundation of ideas that may be used by the parents of a child on the spectrum who seems to have similar mealtime troubles.
For more information, feel free to check out these other articles focusing on similar topics!