Do you think your child with autismis eating poorly? More often than not, children with autism are not the easiest eaters. Smells, sounds and textures can influence autistic children to eat or not eat something. For example, one person only wants soft food, the other prefers hard products. Is your child getting enough nutrients? And how can you teach your child to eat more varied? Two experienced parents give tips.

Preference for hard food

Always have faith, is the most important advice from mother Saida (47). Her 7-year-old son Nuri has classic autism. From an early age he has a preference for hard food, preferably raw. “He also always wanted whole foods. So, for example, I wasn’t allowed to cut anything in half. In addition, it was not allowed to come into contact with each other, but everything had to have a separate compartment. He has non-verbal classic autism, so at first I only noticed it when he was making noises, pushing food away or crying.”

Children with autism eat what they need

The food had to be recognizable to Nuri. “Until he was four, he really didn’t want to eat cooked food. It had to be raw. For example, he ate carrots, celery and nuts. It was very difficult, you do think, maybe he will miss something later. But I spoke to a professional at the time and he told me to have faith. That children really do eat what they need. For example, he did not eat meat or drink milk, but he did want nuts and legumes.”

Patience is very important

“At one point I also noticed that he sometimes allowed other foodstuffs. What he loved one day, such as bananas, suddenly he didn’t need anymore and then he wanted something else. Having faith that things will turn out all right turned out to be true. Sometimes I was already very stressed to put something on the table and what his reaction would be, but a child notices that too. Also, you really shouldn’t take it personally. I saw how much effort it took him to taste something new. It is not unwillingness. It is also a huge struggle for them. Patience is so important.”

Do not substitute foods

In addition, according to Saida, it is very important not to replace certain foods with products that may pass through the stomach more easily, such as sweets or biscuits. “In terms of sweets, Nuri has only eaten fruit and, for example, raisins. You mustn’t think, oh tonight he didn’t eat anything, I’m giving something else, which actually has no nutritional value. Some parents complain that their child does not eat anything, while sometimes they have just finished a whole box of chocolate. Then I understand, that child is already full.”

Let your child watch while cooking

Around the age of four, Nuri suddenly wanted to try pasta and since he was seven he has also tried a piece of meat. “I always involve him in the cooking, from an early age, then I show him what I do. That food ‘breaks’ during cooking and what it looks like.

I also involve him while shopping and explain what it is all about. At one point he also took a bite out of a potato and an onion, but he soon realized that raw is really not good.”

Letting go of what is ‘normal’

According to Saida, with a child with autism it is important not to think about traditional role patterns, such as hot food in the evening and sandwiches in the afternoon. “He still doesn’t want bread, it has to be hard, so he eats crackers. I don’t need it either. Give them confidence. Don’t fight. If a child doesn’t want to eat anymore, take it away.

Eventually, your child will eat, provided you do not offer unhealthy substitutes. He or she is not going to starve to death. And approach professionals if you have any questions. For example, keep an eye on whether your child is bothered by something, such as stomach pain after eating or heartburn. It can sometimes also have an underlying cause. But with Nuri, everything is good, he is not deficient in anything, so again, trust that your child really does eat when he or she needs it.”

Eat as soft as possible

Marije (41) her son Noa (9), MCDD, also has his own eating habits. Unlike Nuri, everything has to be as soft as possible with him. “Because I worked in healthcare, I soon found out that certain foods made him feel a certain way. Noa has always loved the feeling that his mouth is full and he pays a lot of attention to structure. Everything has to be as soft as possible with him. For example, I recently had a few strands in the broccoli soup, he notices that right away. I then pureed it a few more times and it’s good again, but we also had to find out that structure is very important,” she says.

Accept that a child with autism eats differently

She also shares the opinion that you have to accept that a child eats slightly different than is considered ‘traditional’. And that you should not replace natural food with processed food. “A child naturally gets hungry. A child’s body wants nourishment. And who cares how you give it? For example, I always have to build a dam between sauce and other ingredients. You have to let go of the idea of ‘this is how you should eat’ as a parent.

And talk about it. For example, Noa tells whether something feels good in his mouth or not. Sometimes we also cook together. I do this to keep the conversation about food open and neutral. The other day he said ‘We came up with this together, but this is not so successful’.

“We are not constantly fighting”

“His father was a chef, so we are always busy with food. We eventually found a way to adjust structures in the way that Noa likes to feel in his mouth. For example, he also likes smooth structures, he likes to eat pasta. He likes that better than rice or potatoes. He can suck that in and that’s how he got his vegetables. For example, because he is now going back to school after the lockdown, we have already thought that it might be better to eat pasta for a few days in a row. Then of course you eat pasta for days in a row, but for him that is relaxed, because he already has so many new things on his mind. We are not constantly fighting.”

Experiment with structures

According to Marije, pureeing can also help to get to know and recognize flavours. “In the beginning, for example, we often mashed zucchini into our homemade pasta sauce. But when I once suggested zucchini he didn’t want it, because he didn’t think he would like it. I said, you’ve just eaten this many times. Experiment with structures. For example, if you grill vegetables such as spinach or kale or make chips from it, it is also very different and just crunchy. That way your child will at least get to know the flavors.”

More tips? The book Autism and Eating Disorders

Do you need more tips? Then also consult the book Autism and Eating Disorders by Thomas Fondelli. The book pays attention to how eating problems can arise in people with autism, who eat little or hardly any variety. Additional tips are also given to help people with autism in this process.

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