Mealtimes can be a huge source of stress for autistic people and their families. Many autists are described as fussy eaters, but it is important to remember that those food preferences may be sensory preferences. There are many sensory issues that come into play with food; the look, smell, texture, taste, the noise it makes when we eat it.
If you or an autistic family member is avoiding one sensory area, for example touch, this will have a big impact on avoiding certain foods. Taste can be overwhelming too – too much sensory input is something many autistic people want to avoid so eating blander food might be preferable – and all children, autistic or not, have more taste buds than adults so taste is “bigger”.
Trying new anything can be tough and anxiety provoking for autists, especially during times of higher stress and routine changes, but food with all that sensory input can be incredibly hard.
General pointers for food and eating are:
- Don’t stress yourself or the other autistic people in your family. Mealtimes can be difficult enough, so making autists feel bad for not eating a wider range of food is likely to increase anxiety, not lessen it.
- If the sensory eater is your child and you have a varied diet, model good eating habits. Show them that enjoying a wide range of foods is possible.
- Look at, hold, sniff, otherwise explore the food with no expectation of taking a bite. Don’t focus on taking a bite, if they/you do the above, that’s marvellous. If that leads to a tentative lick of the food, fantastic. Take it super slowly.
- If you/your child tolerates praise, give lots of praise for being brave and exploring the food. Celebrate forward steps.
- Follow their/your own lead. If they/you start to show an interest in something new, get it if possible. Rather than putting the new item on the plate with food you expect them/yourself to eat, you can try popping it on a side plate and take plenty time. If you/they cannot manage, that is ok. Eat something else instead.
- Be honest. If you are trying a new version of something your partner/child likes, i.e., a new pasta sauce, let them know. Don’t pretend it’s the same one you have always used, they know when something is different.
There is some evidence to suggest that autistic people are more likely to have a food intolerance and/or allergy. This is not all autistic people, but something worth remembering and investigating if needs be.