Parents of individuals with Autism commonly report eating difficulties including selective eating and difficulty with the mealtime routine. Issues with eating can be very difficult to address because parents may feel reluctant to implement interventions during mealtime because they just want their child to eat something. This is completely understandable, so we have a few suggestions that might help ease you and your child into better eating habits.
Tip 1: All eating takes place at the table
The first step to better eating habits is to ensure all meals and snacks are consumed at the table. Many children with eating problems tend to graze throughout the day and across locations which can impact their willingness to eat during mealtimes because they are either not hungry or because it’s not part of the routine. So, when your child requests a snack instruct them to sit at the table. It’s important not to make this confrontational because you don’t want to make eating a negative experience. Once they’re sitting at the table, give them their snack or other preferred food. If they get up from the table, make sure they do not take the food with them. It may take a while, but eventually your child will understand this new rule and eating at the table will become routine and easy. Once this routine is established, you can move on to improving the quality and quantity of food consumed.
Tip 2: No eating at least 1 hour before meals
If your child has recently eaten, it is unlikely they will eat during mealtimes especially if the meal is non-preferred. It’s important to ensure no food is consumed prior to mealtimes to ensure they are hungry as this will increase their motivation to eat. If your child is requesting a snack before mealtime, either instruct them to wait or begin the meal early.
Tip 3: Make eating demands clear and manageable
One common problem is introducing new foods too much too soon. Make the demands clear (i.e. eat the carrot, and then you can have some macaroni) and manageable (i.e. just one carrot, not a whole plate). Another important key here is to start small, be very calm and not force your child to eat anything, simply make their access to the preferred food contingent upon them eating the non-preferred food. If they eat what you’ve instructed them to eat, then they get to eat their preferred food item or drink their preferred drink.
Tip 4: If they leave the table, that’s OK
Another common problem I see is parents forcing their child to sit and eat making the situation miserable for both parties. So, if your child leaves the table and refuses to eat what you’ve asked them to eat… let them go. It’s okay. The key is to make sure they do not eat anything else until they have complied with the initial demand. If they leave the table and then an hour later ask for a snack, re-present the original instruction to eat the non-preferred item and then they can have the preferred item. It might take a while, but this is usually the most effective way to handle the situation.
Tip 5: Increase your expectations slowly
If your child eats one carrot today, don’t expect them to eat five carrots tomorrow. This may sound silly, but it’s something very important to keep in mind. You want your child to keep trying, so you should always be trying to gauge how easy something was for you child. If they ate one carrot but it was difficult and took a long time, continue with the one carrot until it becomes easy for your child. Once your child gets to the point where you place the demand and they comply with ease, then you can gradually increase the demand. You should always be striving to raise your expectations, but make sure you’re not raising them too soon or too quickly otherwise progress can be slowed.
Tip 6: Seek professional help
Many times, following the suggestions above will help get you and your child on the right track. However, there may be something else happening which may be negatively impacting progress. If you try the above suggestions but are not seeing improvement within one month, it is time to seek professional assistance. Seeking the support of a behavior analyst, an occupational therapist, a speech therapist or a nutrition/feeding specialist who has experience working with individuals with eating problems may be in order. The type of assistance you seek will depend on the root of the problem so the professional will need to conduct an assessment to understand the issue, write up an intervention plan, implement the intervention plan and monitor progress closely to ensure progress is being made.