by Lauren Sivelle, MSEd, BCBA
Lauren Sivelle is a Board Certified Behavior Analyst providing care and ABA treatment in our Freehold, NJ Clinic.
Food selectivity is a common concern among parents of children on the Autism Spectrum. Food selectivity can be more than just “picky eating,” as it often involves a significantly restricted food repertoire, and complete refusal of entire foods or food categories based upon things like taste, texture, color, etcetera. Food selectivity is often very distressing for parents and caregivers of children with Autism, as they often worry about adequate caloric intake, nutrition, and overall good health.
If your child has been thoroughly evaluated and there is no underlying medical cause for their food selectivity (e.g., allergies, swallowing disorders, gastrointestinal disorders, etc.), there are simple steps parents can take to increase their child’s flexibility with foods:
- Keep introducing the new target food. A common mistake parents make is presenting a new food only once or twice and removing it when their child refuses to try it. According to research (Lakkakula, 2010), it may take up to 10 exposures before a child will acquire a taste for a new food.
- Make the most highly preferred foods available AFTER they try the newly introduced food item. This means using the first/then rule when presenting new food items: “First you need to take a bite of the sandwich, THEN you can have french fries.”
- Start with small expectations and gradually increase the amount of food they are expected to consume. It would be overwhelming to a child if they were expected to eat an entire steak for the first time it was put on their plate. Instead, keep the initial expectation limited to a bite or two (or perhaps even just touching it with their fork). Then after a few days of success, you can gradually increase your expectation of the amount you would like your child to consume prior to eating their preferred foods.
- Involve your child in the process. This can include taking your child with you to the grocery store to pick one or two new food items that your child is willing to try or including your son or daughter in the preparation of the food. Since food selectivity often has roots in sensory aversions, exposing children to the target food during the preparation stage could help them become more comfortable around different textures and ingredients.
- Make sure they are hungry. When introducing new foods, it is often helpful to make sure your child hasn’t recently snacked or had a big meal and that your son/daughter is motivated by hunger to eat.
- Provide lots of praise, even for the smallest victories. For example, if your child normally pushes a plate away or throws the item on the floor when a non-preferred food is offered but begins to tolerate it on the same plate as the things he/she/they normally eat, let your child know that you are proud.
- Don’t get discouraged! It’s easy to become discouraged or frustrated when you feel like no matter what you do, your child just will not try new foods. If a pediatrician has reassured you that your child is otherwise healthy and growing even with his or her limited diet, then you may decide to give yourself the space and time to work on this at the pace that works best for you and your child. However, if you feel like you are too overwhelmed to go it alone, there are professionals who can help. Board Certified Behavior Analysts, Speech Therapists, Occupational Therapists and Nutritionists can often provide individualized assessments and treatment recommendations to address food selectivity. If your child is currently enrolled in an ABA program, speaking to the BCBA about your concerns is a great place to start.
Lakkakula, Anantha, Geaghan J, et.al 2010) “Repeated taste exposure increases liking for vegetables by low-income elementary school children.” Appetite 55(2):226-31