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Picky or Problem?

Its common, its common, its common.

That is the first thing that needs to be said to any caregiver who ended up here while researching "picky eater" + Autism. You are not the only one experiencing this.

Autistic individuals (because this is not just an issue for children) exhibit higher rates of food refusal, and a more limited food repertoire, when compared to typically developing individuals (Bandini et al, 2010).

Examples? Sure.

Across my clients, I regularly see issues with:

Rigidity around meals (where to sit at the table, what plate to eat off, which spoon to use, must have the tablet in order to eat)

Food refusal challenging behavior (throwing plates, flinging cups to the floor, spitting food out, tantrums, pouring liquids out onto the floor)

Highly selective food intake (daily diet consists of less than 10 foods, likes chicken nuggets but only from a specific fast food place, will only take specific liquid from a specific sippy cup or bottle)

To define the term, a picky eater can be described as regularly refusing foods, or consistently only eating the same foods with little to no variation permitted.

Many parents of toddlers deal with a picky eating phase at some point or another, and often the child outgrows it.

So, what is the critical determining factor when it comes to Autism that tips the scale from someone who is just "picky" to a serious health problem and concern? Usually, it is a combination of variables that must be examined and weighed:

How old is the individual? If out of the toddler phase, how frequently is this issue happening (weekly? daily? or only at holiday meals?)

Does food refusal occur with challenging or aggressive behavior?

Is this impacting school/daycare, or the ability to go into community locations?

Will the individual skip several consecutive meals (refuse to eat across more than one day)?

Is this impacting the individual's weight, organs, toileting/digestion, skin, hair, or nutrition? Is your doctor concerned?

The key factor for seeking out intervention for this issue is when the food selectivity is causing harm to the individual. When any specific behavior impacts the health/body of the person exhibiting it, that is clinically referred to as a "self-injurious" behavior. Self-injurious behaviors should not be ignored, and often require intervention and treatment.

So what to do? 

 It may be helpful to reframe the way we view picky eaters. Sometimes families can view this behavior as their child willfully choosing to make meals a dreadful adventure. Choosing to be difficult and fling plates across the room in order to cause chaos. However, challenging behaviors often occur for complex or multifaceted reasons. Some Autistics use the term "sensory eater" and not "picky eater" to describe this issue, and explain it like this:  

"Picky eaters don’t like a variety of foods, much like the sensory eater. However, when picky eaters try new foods, it doesn’t cause a sensory overload....There is a sensitivity to textures, where children can only handle one texture, such as smooth, pureed foods. In this case, they might be able to eat yogurt, however, hand them a bag of chips or a slice of turkey and they immediately begin to gag" (www.researchautism.org).

If a specific food texture, smell, sight, or tactile experience is causing significant distress, if there are tooth or gum issues making eating painful or uncomfortable, if the individual has trouble swallowing, or if unknown allergies are present, making digestion painful or uncomfortable, doesn't it make sense for the individual to refuse a food (or eventually, any food that looks like THAT food) or exhibit excessive selectivity? Now, imagine the individual has no means to communicate how food makes them feel. Doesn't it make sense that they may cry, spit, hit or punch, or fling a plate onto the floor? 

When seeking out Feeding Intervention (which is a clinical specialty), it is important to first obtain medical rule out. This means first speaking with your doctor to discuss the issue, and see if the individual's health has been impacted. The doctor may also be able to make a referral to a qualified specialist.

Not every professional will be trained in feeding interventions, so this isn't as simple as just asking the current therapist to also target feeding. I see families do that a lot, without also asking about the therapist's qualifications to address this issue. 

It probably doesn't need to be said, but feeding challenges can have serious health complications and you don't want to gamble on unproven treatments, untrained professionals, or questionable practices. Not only could they harm your child, they could worsen/ingrain the problem even further.

SLPs, BCBAs, OTs, Healthcare professionals, and Multi-Disciplinary clinics or facilities, can all incorporate feeding intervention into therapy goals. The Children's Healthcare of Atlanta recommends the following step-by-step process for initiating feeding intervention/feeding therapy:

  • Medical Screening
  • Behavioral Evaluation
  • Nutrition Assessment
  • Oral-Motor Skills Assessment

Remember, before seeking out therapy or treatment talk to your doctor first. Also, any feeding intervention that occurs on-site will need a caregiver training portion where the parents are taught how to implement the procedure at home/in the community.


About The Author: Tameika Meadows, BCBA

“I’ve been providing ABA therapy services to young children with Autism since early 2003. My career in ABA began when I stumbled upon a flyer on my college campus for what I assumed was a babysitting job. The job turned out to be an entry level ABA therapy position working with an adorable little boy with Autism. This would prove to be the unplanned beginning of a passionate career for me.

From those early days in the field, I am now an author, blogger, Consultant/Supervisor, and I regularly lead intensive training sessions for ABA staff and parents. If you are interested in my consultation services, or just have questions about the blog: contact me here.”