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Sensory Food Issues in Autism

Atypical eating behaviors are significantly more common in individuals with autism compared to children with other disorders and neurotypical children. Research indicates that approximately 70.4% of individuals with autism exhibit atypical eating behaviors, in contrast to 13.1% of children with other disorders and 4.8% of neurotypical children.

Children with autism are often described as picky or selective eaters, displaying restricted repertoires of food acceptance that may be limited to as few as five foods. This narrow range of accepted foods can lead to nutritional deficiencies and challenges in meeting dietary requirements.

Furthermore, recent longitudinal studies have suggested a heightened risk of developing eating and feeding disorders in individuals with autism. These studies indicate that greater autistic traits in childhood predict disordered eating in adolescence.

sensory food issues in autism

Impact of Sensory Processing

Sensory processing plays a crucial role in the food-related challenges experienced by individuals with autism. Sensory sensitivities can result in heightened responses to sensory input, including taste, texture, and smell. 

These sensitivities can “send us over the edge,” leading to the perception of certain foods as aversive or overwhelming.

Tactile defensiveness, a sensory sensitivity involving aversion or discomfort to certain textures, may contribute to food selectivity in children with autism. The textures and consistencies of certain foods can trigger an adverse sensory response, making it difficult for individuals with autism to expand their food preferences.

Additionally, individuals with autism may experience sensory processing disorder (SPD), which can further contribute to texture sensitivities with food. SPD refers to difficulties in processing and integrating sensory information from the environment, including tactile, auditory, and visual stimuli. Texture sensitivities can make it challenging for individuals with autism to tolerate certain food textures, leading to limited food choices.

sensory food issues in autism

Common Food Challenges in Autism

There are several food challenges frequently observed among autistic individuals. These challenges can significantly impact their eating behaviors and mealtime experiences. 

Understanding these challenges is crucial for parents and caregivers in providing appropriate support and guidance. Let’s look at the three most common food challenges among autistic individuals.

Limited Food Preferences

One of the most prevalent food challenges in autism is limited food preferences. Research has shown that approximately 88% of individuals with autism exhibit this behavior. It means that they have a narrow range of preferred foods and may be resistant to trying new ones. 

In fact, the aforementioned study has found that grain products and chicken, particularly nuggets, are often the preferred foods for autistic individuals with limited food preferences.

Limited food preferences can be influenced by sensory issues, such as taste and smell sensitivities, as well as a preference for familiarity and routine. Autistic individuals may feel a sense of comfort and security when consuming the same foods repeatedly, known as “samefoods.” These familiar foods help them avoid stress related to unexpected textures or flavors.

Hypersensitivity to Food Textures

Hypersensitivity to food textures is another common food challenge experienced by individuals with autism. 

Approximately 46% of individuals with autism exhibit hypersensitivity to food textures. Sensory sensitivities, such as tactile defensiveness, can contribute to this challenge. Autistic individuals may have difficulty tolerating certain textures, such as slimy or crunchy foods, resulting in aversions and resistance to eating them.

The hypersensitivity to food textures can be distressing for individuals with autism and can lead to limited food choices. It is important for parents and caregivers to be aware of this sensitivity and provide alternative options that are more tolerable for the individual. 

Gradual exposure to different textures, along with sensory integration techniques, may help individuals with autism expand their food choices over time.

Samefoods and Comfort

Autistic individuals often seek comfort and security in familiar routines and patterns. This includes their food choices. Many autistic individuals, especially as children, rely on “samefoods” for comfort and reduce stress during mealtime. Samefoods are specific foods that are consumed repetitively and consistently.

Limited palates and reliance on samefoods are rooted in underlying reasons such as sensory sensitivities and the need for predictability and familiarity. For autistic individuals, samefoods provide a sense of control and reduce anxiety, making mealtime more manageable.

Understanding and respecting the autistic individual’s reliance on samefoods is crucial. Gradual exposure to new foods and textures can be introduced in a supportive and non-threatening manner, but it is important to remember that pushing too hard or pressuring them to eat unfamiliar foods may cause additional stress and anxiety.

sensory food issues in autism

Strategies for Coping with Picky Eating

To address picky eating in individuals with autism, parents and caregivers should play a key role in finding effective strategies to navigate this challenge. Understanding parental perspectives and learning how to deal with limited palates can help create a positive and supportive environment for the individual.

Parental Perspectives

Grace Kidd, a parent of an autistic child, provides valuable advice for dealing with picky eating in autistic individuals. She emphasizes that there are plenty of autistic adults who eat a limited range of foods and manage to avoid malnutrition. This offers hope to parents facing similar challenges and highlights the importance of not placing undue pressure on the individual to conform to societal norms of eating.

Parents should approach picky eating with empathy and patience. It’s essential to understand that the sensory sensitivities experienced by individuals with autism can contribute to their food selectivity. 

By recognizing and respecting their preferences, parents can create a more supportive and comfortable environment during meal times.

Dealing with Limited Palates

Children with autism often exhibit selective eating behaviors, with very restricted acceptance of foods, sometimes limited to as few as five items. Dealing with limited palates requires a proactive and patient approach.

One strategy is to gradually introduce new foods in a non-threatening way. This can involve incorporating small amounts of new foods alongside familiar and preferred foods. It’s important to allow the individual to explore and interact with new foods at their own pace without pressure.

Another approach is to focus on the nutritional quality of the foods that the individual is willing to eat. By working with a registered dietitian, parents can identify the key nutrients that might be lacking in the limited food repertoire and find creative ways to supplement the diet. 

This helps ensure that the individual receives the necessary nutrients for their overall health and well-being.

Creating a positive mealtime atmosphere is also crucial. Establishing a routine, providing a calm environment, and minimizing distractions can help reduce anxiety and sensory overload during meals. Additionally, involving the individual in meal planning and preparation can foster a sense of ownership and increase their willingness to try new foods.

Sensory Sensitivities and Food Selectivity

Sensory sensitivities and food selectivity often go hand in hand among individuals with autism. 

Sensory processing differences play a significant role in the food selectivity observed in individuals with autism. Autistic individuals may experience sensory input in a way that can be overwhelming or distressing, leading to what is commonly perceived as picky eating. This can result in a reliance on “samefoods,” which are foods consumed repetitively to avoid the stress associated with unexpected textures or flavors.

Texture sensitivities are also particularly prominent among individuals with autism and can contribute to their food selectivity. Sensory processing disorder (SPD) can cause texture sensitivities, where certain textures of food can be distracting and anxiety-inducing for children with autism. This can lead to avoidance of specific foods.

In addition to sensory processing differences, other factors such as dental or medical issues, anxiety, food allergies, and comorbid conditions can also contribute to hypersensitivity to food textures in individuals with autism.

Hypersensitivity to food textures can have social and nutritional implications. Children with autism may struggle with social situations and feel alienated during shared meals due to their aversion to certain textures. 

Nutritionally, there may be concerns about having a varied diet, consuming healthy foods, and addressing potential medical problems and vitamin deficiencies arising from food aversions.

sensory food issues in autism

How to Address Nutrition Concerns

Addressing nutrition concerns in autistic individuals requires a comprehensive and interdisciplinary approach. The challenges associated with sensory food issues in autism often require the expertise of various professionals, including dietitians, occupational therapists, and psychologists.

Interdisciplinary Approaches

Interdisciplinary approaches involve a collaborative effort among different professionals to address the complex nature of sensory food issues in autism. This approach recognizes that the challenges individuals with autism face are multifaceted and require a holistic approach to achieve the best outcomes.

Dietitians play a crucial role in addressing nutrition concerns. They can assess the individual’s current dietary intake, identify any nutritional deficiencies, and develop personalized meal plans to ensure adequate nutrient intake. Dietitians can also provide guidance on supplements and specialized diets that may benefit individuals with autism.

Occupational therapists are instrumental in addressing sensory processing difficulties. They can help individuals with autism develop strategies to manage sensory sensitivities related to food textures. Through sensory integration therapy, occupational therapists can assist individuals in gradually expanding their tolerance for different food textures, making mealtimes less challenging.

Psychologists can provide valuable support in addressing the emotional and behavioral aspects of sensory food issues in autism. They can help individuals with autism and their families manage anxiety and stress related to food and eating. Psychologists can also work on behavioral interventions to address food selectivity and promote positive mealtime experiences.

By combining the expertise of these professionals, an interdisciplinary approach can help individuals with autism navigate sensory food issues more effectively and improve their overall nutritional well-being.

Improving Nutritional Intake

Improving nutritional intake is a key goal in addressing sensory food issues in autism. It is essential to ensure that individuals with autism receive adequate nutrients for their growth, development, and overall health. 

Here are some strategies to consider:

By addressing the social impact of food aversions and finding solutions to nutritional concerns, we can better support autistic individuals in their dietary journey. It is crucial to approach these challenges with empathy, understanding, and a multidisciplinary approach to ensure the well-being and overall development of individuals with autism.

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