In honor of World Autism Awareness Day, observed annually on April 2nd, we’ll dedicate today’s article to addressing a fundamental concern affecting many parents of children with autism: the dietary challenges their children face. According to speech and language pathologist, Lic. Nellie Torres de Carella, approximately 70% of these children experience dietary difficulties, ranging from mild to severe, causing family tensions and constant worry for parents.

Some children with autism exhibit extreme selectivity in their food preferences, limiting their diet to certain flavors and textures, while others may have an insatiable appetite. This situation is a constant source of concern for parents, who strive to ensure their children receive adequate nutrition.

Moreover, these children often struggle with changes or transitions, explaining their attachment to routines and resistance to trying new foods. Neophobia, or fear of new things, is one of the main causes of this resistance.


Development of Feeding Skills

The process of developing feeding skills is a gradual challenge for these children, who may find the different textures, flavors, and temperatures of foods overwhelming. Additionally, obsessive behaviors towards certain foods or objects are common. For example, some children may fixate on a specific food and reject any other variation of it.

Children with autism also tend to have difficulty processing sensory information, influencing their food preferences. For instance, those with high oral sensitivity may avoid hard-textured foods, while those with low sensitivity may prefer them.

Low muscle tone in these children can also make chewing hard foods difficult, leading them to prefer soft foods and avoid those requiring more effort.

How Can We Address These Dietary Problems?

Addressing these dietary problems is crucial and requires a comprehensive approach that includes feeding therapy. This involves working on normalizing oral sensitivity, sensory development, mouth, and tongue skills, as well as expanding the variety of accepted foods, with active participation from the family.

By tackling these challenges, not only does the child’s health improve, but it also promotes a more harmonious family environment during meals. Ultimately, all family members benefit from this approach focused on the well-being of the child with autism.

Here are some strategies to help children overcome these difficulties and establish healthier eating habits:

  • Introduce Variety Gradually: Expose the child to a variety of foods gradually. Introduce new foods progressively, adapting to the child’s preferences and offering options that are familiar and comforting.
  • Adapt Meals: If the child has specific food preferences, try adapting meals to include their favorite foods while also creatively introducing new foods. For example, incorporate vegetables into mashed potatoes or blend fruits with vegetables in smoothies.
  • Provide Sensory Support: If the child has sensory sensitivities, such as hypersensitivity to certain textures, find ways to make the eating experience more comfortable. This may include offering foods in different forms, temperatures, or presentations.
  • Establish Consistent Routines: Maintaining consistent mealtime routines can help the child feel safer and more comfortable during the process. Set regular meal schedules and create a calm and relaxed atmosphere at the table.
  • Seek Professional Support: If the child’s dietary difficulties are severe or persistent, don’t hesitate to seek professional help. A dietitian, occupational therapist, or speech-language pathologist can offer specialized strategies and support to address these difficulties effectively.

What textures are better accepted by children with autism?

For children with autism, food textures are often an important aspect to consider due to possible sensory sensitivities. Although preferences may vary from one child to another, some textures are generally considered more suitable:

  • Soft and smooth textures: Foods like purees, yogurts, puddings, jellies, fruit or vegetable mash, and foods steamed or baked tend to be well accepted by many children with autism.
  • Uniform textures: Foods that have a uniform and smooth texture in the mouth may be preferred, as they avoid unpleasant surprises or unexpected sensations when chewing. For example, mashed foods, smoothies, creamy soups, or pureed foods.
  • Flexible or gelatinous textures: Foods like gelatins, soft fruits (such as bananas or grapes without skin), or custards can be well tolerated due to their soft and easy-to-chew consistency.
  • Easily dissolvable textures: Foods that easily dissolve in the mouth, such as soft cheese, pasta cooked al dente, or tender pieces of chicken or fish, may be suitable options for some children with autism.

It’s important to remember that texture preferences may vary among children with autism, so it’s essential to observe and respect each child’s individual signals to determine which textures are most suitable for them. Additionally, working with an occupational therapist or a nutrition specialist can be helpful in developing personalized strategies and promoting a healthy and enjoyable diet.

Supplementary Nutrition Considerations

María José Romero, a nutritionist with experience in child nutrition, notes that various studies suggest certain vitamins, minerals, and fatty acids may influence behaviors such as attention and stereotypies. However, the results are not yet conclusive for direct application.

Therefore, she emphasizes the importance of a complete diet to prevent nutritional deficiencies in children with ADHD and ASD. Regarding ADHD, research has explored the possible association between sugar consumption and certain behaviors, though not as a direct cause. As for ASD, the exclusion of gluten and casein has been debated, but no significant effects have been found.

A balanced diet is crucial for the physical and mental development of children. Optimal nutrients are required for basic bodily functions, such as neurotransmitter and hormone synthesis.

Parents can seek nutritional guidance from specialized professionals who will be part of multidisciplinary teams to guide them in caring for their children with ADHD and ASD.

In the quest to improve the quality of life for these children, proper nutrition emerges as an essential tool. With professional support and tailored strategies, the path to comprehensive well-being is paved, where each meal represents a step towards a brighter and fuller future for these young ones.