Eating with Autism

Many autistic people struggle with eating and are often termed “picky-eaters”, but the issue is much more complicated than stubbornness alone.

I have been a picky eater my entire life. And, while some of my stranger food habits may have gone unnoticed during childhood or brushed off as typical childhood food aversions, their continuation into adulthood has brought on more than one or two confusing looks. From ordering hamburgers as “just the burger, bun, and onions” to strictly refusing any mac’n’cheese that isn’t Kraft to refusing any toppings beyond pepperoni on my pizza, my diet often appears childish. In fact, I am often embarrassed by my inability to be more flexible with my eating habits. I have downloaded every restaurant ordering app with glee, excited to be able to write down my peculiar preferences rather than face the direct judgment of the person taking my order.

My situation isn’t rare. In fact, autistic children are five times more likely to have eating problems than non-autistic kids. As an autistic adult who still struggles with food, I often find the advice I see given to parents of autistic children ridiculous. My parents tried the “don’t leave the table until you have tried everything on your plate” one summer when I was a kid. It wasn’t long before they gave up, realizing I would be willing to sit there all night if it meant I could avoid putting casserole in my mouth.

Much of this advice is rooted in the idea that if we just try a food and keep trying it, we can overcome the stubbornness that is born within each autistic child. The problem is that the reasoning behind many food aversions in autistic kids has more to do with our biology than our “dedication” to driving our parents insane.

While there are many potential reasons an autistic person may be a finicky eater, research has shown that many autistic people have unusually intense sensitivity to taste. Additionally, autistic people are more sensitive to the texture, smell, and even the color of food. This should come with little surprise, considering how common sensory processing issues are in autistics.

As someone with a bachelor’s degree in biomedical science, I am no stranger to the importance of nutrition in living a happy, healthy life. Unfortunately, autistic children and adults with significant food aversions often struggle to eat a healthy diet, myself included. To this day, my “safe food” (a food I can almost always eat without stress) is pepperoni pizza. It’s my go-to when I’m anxious, depressed, or unable to stomach the thought of most other foods. But, it is definitely not healthy.

Unhealthy safe foods are pretty common for autistics, with many of us gravitating towards junk food as our safe foods. I believe this is due to two reasons. First, many junk foods have more bland tastes and textures than healthier options like fruits or vegetables. Second, consistency. I don’t always know what the flavor or texture is going to be of an apple until I bite into it, but I can count on my potato chip to always be the same. Predictability appeals to many autistic people.

The problem is how do we as autistic people (or loved ones of autistic people) make sure we are able to eat a nutritional diet?

A common tactic to fight picky eating is to “starve the child out”, meaning to not provide any other food options, assuming the child will eventually be hungry enough to eat what they are given. Such a plan can be genuinely dangerous with an autistic child, who could continue to refuse to eat indefinitely (what can I say, we’re a stubborn group).

A better tactic, that I still use as an adult, is gradual desensitization. This may start by having a new food simply be present near your meal, maybe even on another person’s plate. Perhaps the next time, the food is placed on the child’s plate, without expectations of them trying it. This allows them time to acclimate to the color and smell long before they have to concern themselves with the taste and texture. Continued introduction, without force, allows for the child (or adult) to slowly grow more accustomed to the food, until they are hopefully able to try eating it.

The key here is patience, whether you’re the parent of an autistic child or an autistic adult trying to broaden your horizons. Having “super senses” comes with its drawbacks, but continuing to pursue new foods and broadening one’s diet is possible. Just in the past year, I have tried many new foods. Some I really like, such as pears, others I probably will avoid for the rest of my life (sorry brussel sprouts). Regardless, I am making progress. I probably won’t ever crave a Midwest casserole or slave over the oven for a meatloaf, but I am proud of the progress I have made thus far and continue to make.

Sources and Further Reading:

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