Autism Spectrum Disorders: Finicky Eating

Eileen Bailey Health Guide
  • Many children go through a picky phase during childhood. They want to eat the same foods, over and over and are hesitant or afraid to try new foods. Most of the time, these issues resolve themselves within a few months. But for children with autism, the fussiness can be extreme and last for years, with some remaining picky eaters throughout their lives.


    Children with autism can become so picky, eating only one or two foods or barely touching meals, that parents worry they are getting the proper nutrition or if health will suffer. The good news is, according to a study completed in England, that there was no significant difference in caloric intake, height, weight or body mass index between children with autism who were considered picky eaters and children without autism. One of the authors of the study, Pauline Emmett, states, “For parents of an autistic child, this data suggests they needn’t be too concerned about their child’s eating habits. In general, these children are not going to end up malnourished.” [1]

    Add This Infographic to Your Website or Blog With This Code:


    Many times, sensory issues are to blame for eating issues. For example:

    Some textures of foods may be unpleasant or painful for children. Some children may find only soft foods tolerable while others may eat only crunchy foods.

    Because of a fine sense of smell, certain odors may be unpleasant enough to have a child lose his appetite.


    Some children may only eat certain tastes, such as only sour foods or only salty foods. Other foods might be tolerable with a sauce or the use of condiments to make foods fall into the proper category of taste.


    In addition to sensory difficulties, some children with autism will limit their food intake to only certain colors, for example only eating foods that are white and refusing foods that are red. Anxiety can also cause problems with eating. Your child may be fearful of trying new foods or refuse to eat foods that remind them of an unpleasant experience.


    Tips for Improving Your Child’s Eating Habits


    Rule out any medical cause. Make sure your child isn’t experiencing allergic reactions to certain foods. Your child may not be able to put together the cramps in their stomach with a particular food but may still limit their intake to foods that don’t cause an unpleasant or painful feeling. Discuss food sensitivities with your doctor.


    Keep a food diary to track what your child will or won’t eat. Write down the time, the place, foods eaten and foods refused. As you continue to keep track, you may see patterns that can help you determine the cause of negative reactions to food.


    Gradually introduce new foods, letting your child get used to the smell, texture and look of the food before asking him to eat it. Place a small amount of the food on a dish near where he sits, letting him see the food each day.


    Use Social Stories to talk about the benefits of trying the new food. Use favorite characters eating this food to help entice your child to try the food.


    Add This Infographic to Your Website or Blog With This Code:

    Provide favorite foods so your child can “sandwich” tastes in between bites of his favorite food. For example, macaroni (favorite food), then broccoli, then macaroni. Your child may be more apt to take a small taste of something if he knows he can eat his favorite food immediately after.


    Limit foods and drinks with empty calories, providing healthy foods during meals.


    Try making food fun and attractive – cut sandwiches in the shapes of stars or place the food on the plate in the shape of a face.


    Keep mealtimes pleasant. Battles over eating cause stress and tension, which may increase your child’s anxiety about eating. Instead, keep a positive attitude. As long as your child’s doctor isn’t concerned with weight and growth, you probably don’t need to be worried either.


    While it often feels as if your child is being defiant, your child isn’t being a fussy eater in order to make you angry or disobey you. If you are concerned or feel your child’s health is suffering, talk with your doctor and ask for referral to a dietician, occupational or behavioral therapist to help you find additional strategies to increase your child’s food intake.




    “Dietary Issues and Autism – Information for Parents, Date Unknown, Professor Bruce Tonge  & Dr. Avril Brereton, Monash University


    “ ‘Fussy Eaters’ and Autism” Date Unknown, Staff Writer,

    [1] “Is Picky Eating an Early Sign of Autism?” 2010, July 19, Alice Park, Time Magazine


    “mealtime and Children on the Autism Spectrum: Beyond Picky, Fussy and Fads,” 2004, Marci Wheeler, M.S.W., Indiana Resource Center for Autism

Published On: February 25, 2013