Autism And Picky Eating: Understanding the Relationship

Studies have shown that up to 70% of children with autism have some form of feeding issues. Why do so many autistic children struggle with picky eating?

Ruben Kesherim
November 16, 2023

Autism And Picky Eating: Understanding the Relationship

Understanding Picky Eating in Children with Autism

When it comes to children with autism, picky eating can be a common and challenging issue. Understanding the relationship between autism and picky eating is crucial for developing effective strategies to support these children and their families.

What is Autism?

Autism, or Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), is a developmental disorder that affects social interaction, communication, and behavior. It is characterized by a range of challenges, including difficulties with social interactions, repetitive behaviors, and sensory sensitivities. Each individual with autism is unique, with their own strengths and challenges.

The Link between Autism and Picky Eating

Picky eating is often associated with children on the autism spectrum. While not all children with autism experience picky eating, research suggests that they are more likely to have feeding difficulties compared to their typically developing peers. The reasons behind picky eating in autism can be complex and multifaceted.

For some children with autism, sensory sensitivities may play a significant role in their eating preferences. They may have heightened sensitivity to certain textures, tastes, smells, or appearances of food. This sensory sensitivity can lead to a limited range of accepted foods and a reluctance to try new foods.

Additionally, the rigid thinking and preference for routine that are common in autism can contribute to picky eating behaviors. Some children with autism may struggle with changes in their eating environment or have a strong preference for specific foods, leading to a limited and repetitive diet.

Challenges Faced by Children with Autism and Picky Eating

Children with autism and picky eating face unique challenges that can impact their overall well-being and quality of life. Some of the challenges include:

  • Nutritional Concerns: Picky eating can result in a limited variety of nutritious foods, potentially leading to nutrient deficiencies and inadequate growth. It is important to work closely with healthcare professionals, such as registered dietitians, to ensure that the child's nutritional needs are met.
  • Social and Emotional Consequences: Picky eating can impact social interactions, family meals, and community activities. Children may feel isolated or anxious in social situations involving food, leading to potential difficulties in socializing and participating in typical childhood experiences.
  • Impact on Daily Life: The challenges associated with picky eating can affect daily routines and family dynamics. Meal planning, grocery shopping, and preparing meals may become more time-consuming and stressful. Balancing the needs and preferences of the child with autism and the rest of the family can be challenging.

By understanding the unique experiences and challenges faced by children with autism and picky eating, we can better support them in developing a healthier relationship with food. Employing appropriate strategies and seeking professional guidance can make a significant difference in expanding their food repertoire and improving their overall nutritional well-being.

Impact of Picky Eating on Children with Autism

Picky eating in children with autism can have various impacts on their overall well-being. Understanding these impacts is crucial for developing strategies to support children in expanding their food preferences and maintaining a balanced diet.

Nutritional Concerns

Picky eating in children with autism can lead to nutritional concerns. Due to their limited food choices, children may miss out on essential nutrients necessary for their growth and development. Nutritional deficiencies can affect their overall health and may contribute to delayed growth, weakened immune system, and other health complications.

Parents and caregivers should work closely with healthcare professionals, such as registered dietitians, to ensure that children with autism receive adequate nutrition despite their picky eating tendencies. A registered dietitian can provide guidance on alternative food options, supplements, and strategies to enhance the nutritional value of the foods the child is willing to eat.

Social and Emotional Consequences

Picky eating can also have social and emotional consequences for children with autism. Mealtime can be a source of stress and anxiety for both the child and their family members. The limited food choices and refusal to try new foods may result in social isolation, as children may feel self-conscious or embarrassed about their eating preferences.

Moreover, picky eating can impact family dynamics and social gatherings. Parents may feel frustrated or worried about their child's eating habits, while siblings may struggle to understand why their brother or sister has such limited food preferences. It is important for parents and caregivers to provide emotional support and encouragement to the child, fostering a positive and understanding environment that promotes healthy relationships with food.

Impact on Daily Life

Picky eating in children with autism can have a significant impact on their daily life. The limited food choices can lead to difficulties in finding suitable meals, both at home and in social settings. This can create challenges when eating out, attending parties, or participating in school activities that involve food.

Additionally, picky eating can disrupt mealtime routines and increase mealtime stress for the entire family. Parents may spend more time and effort trying to accommodate their child's food preferences, leading to added stress and exhaustion. Creating a structured mealtime environment that includes predictable routines and clear expectations can help alleviate some of these challenges.

By understanding the impact of picky eating on children with autism, parents, caregivers, and healthcare professionals can work together to develop effective strategies to address these concerns.

It is important to seek guidance from professionals, such as pediatricians, occupational therapists, and registered dietitians, to ensure holistic support for the child. Through patience, understanding, and a collaborative approach, children with autism can expand their food preferences, improve their nutrition, and ultimately enhance their overall well-being.

Strategies to Help Children with Autism and Picky Eating

When it comes to addressing picky eating in children with autism, implementing effective strategies can make a significant difference. Here are three strategies that can help create a positive and successful mealtime experience for children with autism:

Creating a Structured Mealtime Environment

Children with autism often thrive in structured environments. Establishing a structured mealtime routine can help create a sense of predictability and reduce anxiety around meals. Some key elements of a structured mealtime environment include:

  • Consistent schedule: Establish regular meal and snack times to provide a predictable routine.
  • Limited distractions: Minimize visual and auditory distractions during meals, such as turning off the TV or reducing background noise.
  • Visual schedules: Use visual schedules or visual timers to help children understand and anticipate the sequence of events during mealtime.
  • Clear expectations: Clearly communicate mealtime expectations, such as sitting at the table and using utensils, using visual supports if needed.

By creating a structured mealtime environment, children with autism can feel more comfortable and engaged during meals, which can positively impact their eating habits.

Introducing New Foods Gradually

Introducing new foods can be challenging for children with autism and picky eating tendencies. To help expand their food repertoire, it's important to introduce new foods gradually and systematically. Here are some strategies to consider:

  • Food chaining: Start with foods that are similar in taste, texture, or appearance to the child's preferred foods. Gradually introduce small changes to expand their acceptance of new foods over time.
  • Food exposure: Encourage exposure to new foods through repeated exposure, even if the child initially refuses to eat them. Offer small portions alongside familiar foods and provide positive reinforcement for trying new foods.
  • Food play and exploration: Engage children in sensory play activities involving new foods, such as touching, smelling, or playing with them. This can help increase their familiarity and comfort level with these foods.

Remember, patience is key when introducing new foods to children with autism. It may take multiple attempts and exposures before they feel comfortable trying new foods.

Incorporating Visual Supports

Visual supports can be highly beneficial for children with autism during mealtime. They provide visual cues and support comprehension, which can enhance communication and understanding of mealtime expectations. Here are some ways to incorporate visual supports:

  • Visual schedules: Use visual schedules to indicate the steps involved in mealtime, from washing hands to clearing the table. This helps children understand the sequence of events and what is expected of them.
  • Visual menus: Create visual menus or choice boards that display food options. This allows children to make choices and have a sense of control during mealtime.
  • Social stories: Develop social stories that illustrate appropriate mealtime behavior and highlight the importance of trying new foods. These stories can be personalized to the child's preferences and needs.

By utilizing visual supports, children with autism can better understand mealtime expectations and feel more engaged and empowered during the process.

Implementing these strategies can help children with autism overcome picky eating tendencies and develop a healthier relationship with food. It's important to remember that each child is unique, and what works for one may not work for another. Consulting with professionals, such as pediatricians, occupational therapists, or registered dietitians, can provide further guidance tailored to the specific needs of the child.

Working with Professionals

When it comes to addressing picky eating in children with autism, it is essential to work in collaboration with a team of professionals who can provide guidance and support. The following professionals can play a crucial role in helping children with autism overcome their picky eating habits:

Collaborating with Pediatricians

Pediatricians are medical doctors who specialize in the health and development of children. They can provide valuable insights into the nutritional needs of children with autism and offer guidance on how to address picky eating.

Collaborating with a pediatrician allows for a comprehensive understanding of the child's overall health and any underlying medical conditions that may contribute to their picky eating habits. By working together, parents and pediatricians can develop strategies to ensure that the child receives proper nutrition while accommodating their preferences.

Seeking Help from Occupational Therapists

Occupational therapists are trained professionals who specialize in helping individuals develop skills needed for daily living activities. When it comes to picky eating in children with autism, occupational therapists can address sensory issues and sensory sensitivities that may contribute to food aversions and selective eating.

They can develop personalized strategies to help children overcome challenges related to textures, tastes, and smells. Through sensory integration techniques and exposure therapy, occupational therapists can gradually introduce new foods and expand the child's food repertoire. Collaborating with an occupational therapist can significantly enhance the child's eating experience and overall quality of life.

Consulting with Registered Dietitians

Registered dietitians are experts in nutrition and can provide personalized guidance for children with autism who have picky eating habits. They can assess the child's nutritional intake and identify any deficiencies or imbalances.

Registered dietitians can work closely with parents to develop a balanced and nutritious meal plan that accommodates the child's preferences while meeting their dietary needs. They can also offer advice on food substitutions and creative ways to incorporate essential nutrients into the child's diet. Collaborating with a registered dietitian ensures that the child receives the necessary nutrients for their growth and development.

By working with pediatricians, occupational therapists, and registered dietitians, parents and caregivers can access a multidisciplinary approach to address picky eating in children with autism.

Each professional brings a unique perspective and expertise, allowing for a comprehensive and individualized approach. It is important to remember that every child is different, and what works for one may not work for another. The collaboration between professionals and parents is key to developing effective strategies and supporting the child in developing healthy eating habits.

Supporting Parents and Caregivers

Parents and caregivers play a vital role in helping children with autism navigate the challenges of picky eating. It is important to provide them with the necessary support, resources, and education to effectively address this issue. Here are some strategies to support parents and caregivers in managing picky eating in children with autism.

Educating Parents About Picky Eating in Autism

One of the first steps in supporting parents and caregivers is to educate them about picky eating in autism. Providing information on the connection between autism and picky eating can help parents understand that their child's eating behaviors are not uncommon. They can learn about the underlying reasons for picky eating, such as sensory sensitivities, rigidity, or food aversions. By understanding these factors, parents can approach mealtimes with empathy and a greater understanding of their child's needs.

Providing Emotional Support and Encouragement

Parents and caregivers of children with autism and picky eating often face emotional challenges. They may feel overwhelmed, frustrated, or worried about their child's nutrition and well-being. Offering emotional support and encouragement is crucial in helping them navigate these difficulties.

Assure parents that they are not alone in this journey and that their efforts are making a difference. Encourage them to celebrate small victories and provide reassurance that progress takes time. By acknowledging their efforts, parents and caregivers can feel more empowered and motivated to continue their efforts in addressing picky eating.

Connecting with Support Groups and Resources

Connecting parents and caregivers with support groups and resources can be invaluable. These platforms offer a sense of community where they can share experiences, seek advice, and exchange strategies with others facing similar challenges. Support groups can also provide a safe space for parents to express their concerns and learn from the experiences of others.

By supporting parents and caregivers through education, emotional support, and connection with resources, we can empower them to effectively address picky eating in children with autism. Together, we can create an environment that fosters positive mealtime experiences and encourages healthy eating habits for children with autism.


Picky eating can be a real challenge for children with autism and their families. However, with patience, persistence, and the right strategies, it is possible to encourage healthy eating habits and expand your child's diet. Remember to be kind and understanding, and to celebrate small victories along the way.


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