Addressing Food Aversions & Textures
As a parent/guardian with a child on the spectrum, nutritional issues may be something you have or will encounter. There is the possibility of a specific allergy and sensitivity, feel free to explore the What is Gluten? article for further details on gluten sensitivities. Conversely, nutritional issues can be linked to meal time choices and preferences.
In the following article, we dive into detail on what a food aversion looks like, how to distinguish if your child has one, and provide tips on how to prevent nutritional deficiencies.
What is a Food Aversion?
A food aversion is when a child refuses foods presented for various factors. While many children have specific food aversions at different age groups (as they develop personal food preferences) autistic children may have difficulty exploring different types of foods for several reasons. Recent studies have indicated that children on the spectrum are 5 times more likely to present mealtime challenges such as narrow food choices, ritualistic eating behaviors (foods cannot touch, eating at a specific time/setting) and meal-related tantrums. Furthermore, children with autism may favor or dislike particular food(s) due to the meal experience itself, and/or a sensory issue. The first question to ask is whether your child has an actual specific food aversion and then further investigate why? Is it a Food Aversion? It is important to note that we all have different food preferences and food dislikes. However, autism often comes with hypersensitivity to textures. Note if your child is displaying a food aversion, it may be related to the mouth feel of the food rather than the actual taste. I reviewed research by lead psychologist Emily Kuschner, PhD, of the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. And believe the following summary recommendations can be helpful in addressing food aversions and provide guidance in gently introducing new foods during meal times:
• Look for Physical Cues- closed lips and clapping may indicate a digestion issue. Your child may be avoiding food to prevent stomach upset and is unable to easily communicate with you. • Proceed with caution and stay calm- be patient, most children need to be exposed to a food over 12 times before trying it. Your child may take longer or may simply dislike the food if it’s been avoided over 12 times.
• Small Steps toward tasting- Trying new things can be difficult for a child with autism, help your child by letting them immerse their senses before trying the new food. Look, touch, smell, and then taste. Also try pairing with a favorite food. • Focus on Textures- trying cutting the food into smaller pieces, blending it, cooking it to avoid offensive texture.
• Play and Exposure! – reduce anxiety by playing with food prep, use new veggies to decorate a pizza, paint with sauces, use cookie cutters for fun shapes.
• Offer choices and control- your child may need to feel control over what food is consumed, give options. If you want to focus on your child having at least a serving of vegetables, offer different types. “Which vegetable of these three would you like to try?”
• Beware of Bribes- It’s important to reinforce your child’s willingness to try different foods, however bribing your child can cause them to not learn to enjoy the new food. Let treats be part of meals or snacks without being a reward. This will allow your child to decide whether they like the food or not.
Providing a comfortable space where your child can explore food preferences and textures is key for them to eating a well-balance diet and further avoid nutritional deficits. Gently introduce new textures and respect your child’s autonomy. Remember meal time experience can also influence food preferences and choices, so be mindful of setting, time, and previous food rituals which can impact food acceptance. For further tips, check out KXF future nutrition articles.
Jennifer Rodriguez, RDN