October 10, 2011

The Pickiest Of Eaters: Part 1

The following is written by Bonnie Marquis, a Positive Behavior Support Trainer for the West Virginia Autism Training Center. Bonnie will be writing a series of posts on supporting individuals with ASD who can be described as picky eaters.

We all know that kids can be notoriously picky in their eating habits, but if you have a child on the spectrum chances are you just roll your eyes when you hear others complaining about their neuro-typical child and their eating habits.

They. Have. No. Idea!

And while many kids can be called ‘picky eaters’ this challenge can be particularly vexing for the parent of a child on the spectrum. Beyond just not eating vegetables, some have such a narrow range of acceptable foods that parents can count them on one hand. And for many even just a change in brand can cause a normally favored food to be rejected outright.

While the nutritional problems this presents may be obvious, there are also social implications which can actually have a significant impact on the child and family’s overall quality of life. As most of us can attest, eating is at the heart of nearly every social activity.

Before we can expand food tolerances it’s helpful to understand a few of the characteristics common among people with autism, as well as some basic behavioral principles so we can learn how our own actions might actually be contributing to the issue.

People on the spectrum are notorious for being resistant to change and find predicting events very difficult. On the flip side, they find great comfort in known routines and activities. Trying new foods is hard – it involves change and removes the security of the familiar. Anxiety can build to the point where the person gags or worse. This can be frightening to everyone and common sense tells us to avoid this if at all possible.

Most of us are also well aware of the sensory challenges faced by people on the spectrum – extreme sensitivity to textures AND tastes can compound the challenges of the new and different. And we often end up back to the gagging, particularly if the person has never developed the oral motor muscles necessary to successfully navigate chewing and swallowing various textures. If you find yourself in this position simple behavioral strategies are not likely to be effective and it will take a coordinated effort with occupational and speech therapists in conjunction with behavioral changes in order to make any real progress.

And while a small number of families may be in this position, most situations respond quite well to basic behavioral strategies once the general principles are well understood. For many on the spectrum, what began in the early toddler years as a sensory issue has developed over the years into a predominantly behavioral one. And again, when we return to the common characteristics we can see why and how a person would refuse new and different foods. But how do we change behaviors?

As usual, it really starts by changing our own.

Over the next few months we’ll explore strategies to expand the range of acceptable foods, reduce or eliminate the power struggles and move toward greater meal time harmony.

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