As many parents know, getting your child to try new foods is no minor feat. It’s a herculean task, one that is accompanied, in my home anyway, by a celebratory happy dance. Regardless of whether the food passes muster or not. Just the act of trying something new feels like a breakthrough. It turns out, especially when it comes to vegetables, many kids suffer from neophobia—the morbid fear of novelty.
Having autism compounds the picky eating problem. For kids on the autism spectrum, a disorder whose signature is repetitive behaviors and narrow interests, new food tastes and textures can be deeply disturbing.
Typically, kids with autism may limit or totally avoid some foods and even whole food groups–fruits, vegetables and slippery, soft foods are the usual suspects. That’s why many parents have to resort to seeking out a sensory therapist to come up with food interventions. In some cases, feeding therapy helps kids go beyond their preferred foods repertoire.
But before you enlist the aid of specialist, there are a few things you can try at home. Here are a few tips to get you started.
Create pressure-free mealtimes
Jessica Piatak, an occupational therapist, and Kristina Carraccia, a speech therapist, specialize in working with children with autism spectrum disorders. They have developed a pioneering program called “Food Exploration and Discovery” —“FED” for short, based at The Center for Discovery, in New York. They advise against forcing, coercing, cajoling or bribing food into your child’s mouth. According to them, it “undermines the goal of helping children become comfortable enough to try – and accept – new foods, by placing pressure on them and making mealtimes stressful.”
Getting children with strong preferred foods to venture outside their comfort zone requires ingenuity—and persistence. One way to approach new food territory is to take your child outside of the kitchen. Bring your child to the supermarket with you to choose a new food; or browse cookbooks together to come up with new recipes to explore.
Piatak recommends encouraging kids to play with food—away from the table. She incorporates a variety of play-based desensitization techniques that reduces the anxiety that accompanies the sights, scents, textures and eventually, tastes, of an unfamiliar food. As kids learn more about the properties of a food, she says, they will often get more comfortable licking or even tasting it. (Examples of “food play” are putting food in a toy dump truck or using shredded vegetables to adorn one’s face.)
You don’t even have to make it about actually tasting the new food. The act of branching out and becoming familiar with a range of unaccustomed foods and food textures will eventually translate into your child becoming a more flexible eater.
Be skeptical of diets that cure autism
One of the latest trends in autism treatments is the notion that a gluten or casein-free diet can reduce autistic symptoms. While this approach may work well for certain children, there’s no solid research to support these diets are of particular benefit for spectrum disorders. Plus, a gluten-free diet tends to be low in fiber and essential nutrients. It can also lead to constipation, something that many kids with autism, due to their limited food choices, already struggle with. A gluten-free diet can also exacerbate any nutritional deficiencies.
By cultivating children’s natural curiosity about their senses, and avoiding the trap of restriction or coercion, kids may slowly come around to wanting to eat a wider variety of foods. Not because they were “told” to—but because they felt confident enough to bite off what they knew they could chew.