Many families that include a child with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) may experience restrictive eating habits such as limited foods and ritualistic mealtime routines. In some cases, these behaviors can be severe and may lead to nutritional deficiencies, weight loss, growth delays, and even malnutrition. However, there are strategies that can be employed by the family to help your child increase their food repertoire, and can even make mealtime a fun, engaging family experience! Sounds great, right? Here’s how!
The Food Experiment Challenge
Let’s make trying new food an experiment. This experiment may be as simple as tolerating an unpleasant or new food at the table, passing a dish with the food, smelling the food, or it may be slightly more advanced such as tasting the food, chewing the food, and eventually swallowing the food. Every step of the experiment is important, so just start where your child is comfortable and work your way up! Setting up the Food Experiment Challenge is simple, but it is important to follow-through, be consistent, and tailor it to your child.
Start with a consistent mealtime structure. This should include about 5 minutes of prep, such as setting the table, getting drinks, plating the food, 15-20 minutes of eating, and 5 minutes of clean up. For best results, try to have your child sit at the same table, at the same time each day, without distractions like television or toys. It is also extremely helpful to the “experiment success” if your child is hungry at mealtimes! So, limiting soda, juice, shakes, and snacks at least two hours before your meal can increase willingness to try new food items. You can also help your child set up the experiment ahead of time by involving them in food-related decisions and actions. If your child is willing to help decide the meal plan and grocery list, they may feel more ownership in the process. Likewise, having your child help prepare the meals can be a great way to pretend you are conducting a laboratory experiment, and will help you set up tasting the food as part of the experiment!
Once the family sits down for dinner, make sure both the preferred and non-preferred foods are on the table, and let the experiment begin! Apply the “if, then” principle, so that if your child experiments with a new food, or a food they previously rejected, they then have access to the food they already like and eat. Make sure you provide praise, in whatever manner is appropriate and appreciated by your child, for every new food that was tolerated more than it was last time. You can also provide a token or point, which can be cashed in for small yet desirable prizes. Remember, if a food is refused in the experiment, try taking the experiment down a step. Then, provide praise for that successful experiment and ignore that the original experiment didn’t work. Not every experiment works out the first time, but it will work out eventually! Be patient and be positive!
There are three important notes to touch on when it comes to what an experiment should look like for best results.
Three meals a day and two snacks per day can all be used for experimenting! During experiments, only water should be provided. Additional beverages can be used a reward.
Each meal should include a drink, protein, fruit and/or vegetable, and a carbohydrate. Remember, consistence is key. Try to hit all of these groups with every meal, three times a day!
Experimental foods should not be repeated in the same form that same day or the next day. Instead, you can present the same food in a new or altered form. So if you have a chicken breast, you can present the chicken again but in a new form of a sandwich or soup!
Georgia Autism Center provides assessment, diagnosis, coordination of care, educational planning or assistance with the development of IEPs, and support for families of children with special needs. For more information visit www.georgiaautismcenter.com