Mealtime tips for children with autism

By Claire Breen

Advanced Dietitian

Mealtimes can be challenging for parents of autistic children. The following are some top tips for those parents who must pick their battles when it comes to mealtimes.

Offer at least one preferred food at every meal and snack time.

Autistic Children need to feel safe and confident that there is something that they can eat at mealtimes. Sometimes, when there is not a preferred food or food that matches a child’s skill level or sensory preferences, it can cause stress and anxiety at mealtimes and they will often refuse to eat at all.

Do not give up on offering a range of foods at mealtimes!

Once you find yourself catering to your child’s specific food preferences, you might find that you get to the point where you cannot offer any other foods without a meltdown. Sometimes new foods need to be offered in a very gradual way to help your child slowly build up their tolerance. A great way to offer exposure to a wide range of foods is through grocery shopping with your child or involving them in meal preparation. Offering foods in a buffet style at mealtimes can support your child to explore new foods (look at, interact with, smell, touch and maybe even taste) in a non-pressured way. An Accredited Practising Dietitian can support you to put this into practice in a step by step approach that is individualised to your child’s needs.

Build structure into every mealtime.

Building routines can help support autistic children, as they often prefer to know what is expected of them and what is coming next. They can often experience difficulty with transitioning from one task to another. This can result in meltdowns and refusal behaviour when a child is expected to suddenly transition from an activity they enjoy doing, to mealtime which may be difficult for them. Having structured mealtime routines allow the children to build expectation around the mealtime and what is required, making transitioning easier.

Seek support as picky eating can be tricky to manage.

Get a thorough assessment of your child’s eating and drinking skills. Often picky eating is more than the usual ‘fussy eating’ phase that many children experience as part of typical development. An assessment could include chewing and swallowing skills, self-feeding skills, seating and positioning, and continence. All of these things can have a significant effect on a child’s diet and mealtimes. Our mealtime management service provides a multidisciplinary approach to our customers by considering all these factors.

Watch your language.

Try to avoid negative language about food such as “slimy” and try to use more positive words to describe food or talk about the properties of the food such as “this capsicum is very crunchy”. You can describe your own interactions with food such as “I can put sauce on my meat to make it easier to chew”. Aim to also comment on the positives of the mealtime no matter how small they are rather than the negative such as “You were so helpful at dinner – thank you for putting your fork and placemat on the table.”

Our positive language can help to create a calm and enjoyable mealtime which reduces a child’s stress and anxiety at this time. This helps to promote their appetite to enjoy the food they currently eat and increases the likelihood of experimenting with new food.

Book an appointment with an Accredited Practising Dietitian (APD) to support these mealtime approaches and also to check to see if there are any nutritional gaps in your child’s diet. Nutritional gaps may be impacting the range of foods they’re eating, their food/mealtime behaviours, and growth and development. At Therapy Focus, our Dietitians help manage and prevent poor nutrition in children and adults with disability by supporting their dietary needs.

A customer and therapist cook together

Making mealtimes manageable

If you would like more information about our dietetics service or our mealtime management service please contact us today.