Is your child with autism a picky eater?

Many parents have expressed concern that their child will only eat certain types of food. It’s not uncommon for children to be picky and only desire to eat certain foods (for example pizza, hamburgers, chips, etc.). Who doesn’t have their preferences? However, eating a healthy meal may require a child to eat a combination of things that he likes and things that he can tolerate, but isn’t overly fond of.

Everyone can identify food that they like and don’t like. If someone walks up to you and asks you to eat something you don’t like, you are likely to politely decline. We view the purpose of this blog in a similar manner. That is, this blog was written to provide parents with pointers on how to get the child to eat food that he can tolerate and be more willing to try a new food item. It is NOT meant to get your child to eat foods that he dislikes. Put simply, how would you like it if someone tried to force you to eat something that you didn’t want to eat?

The key to teaching a child to sample and possibly enjoy different foods is to target his flexibility with consuming various food items. Here is a strategy that we’ve used and had some success with:

  • Start by categorizing foods into different groups: foods that the learner absolutely dislikes, foods that are moderately preferred, foods that they can tolerate, food items that the child has yet to try, and foods they love to eat.
  • Identify the learner’s favorite food. Then, pick a second food item that the learner also enjoys eating (slightly less preferred, but still highly preferred overall). Ask the learner to take a bite of the slightly lesser preferred food item. Upon eating it, give him a piece of his favorite food.
  • Using the above process will teach the child that eating one type of food will give him access to another, highly desirable food item. After the child learns this association through repetition, require the learner to eat a moderately preferred food item before getting a bite of the highly preferred food item. By repeatedly presenting the moderately preferred food item and having the child eat it just prior to receiving the highly preferred food item, the moderately preferred item might become more preferred over time! As the child consistently displays a willingness to eat a bite of the moderately preferred food item, you can require him to take an increasing number of bites prior to getting a bite of his preferred item. For example, the child can take 3 bites or 4 bites before getting a couple of French fries.
  • As a final step, require the learner to eat a bite or two of the foods he can tolerate prior to giving him a bite or two of the highly preferred food item.
  • When the learner is eating moderately preferred food items or food items that he can tolerate, it may be worth attempting to have him try a new food item to see if he likes it!

By applying the above tactics, you may be able to increase the range of foods that the child is willing to eat. Again, the goal is to get the child to be willing to eat more types of food. This strategy employs a procedure known as reinforcement and uses it to motivate the child to eat new foods. To learn more about how to develop motivation and deliver reinforcement to strengthen targeted behaviors (for example, increasing flexibility with food consumption), we recommend the book Success on the Spectrum: How to Teach Skills to Individuals with Autism.


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