A dangerous, yet common, misconception in regard to autistic kids is that they will eat if they’re hungry enough. The reality is that hunger, appetite and sensory input all battle each other.
Autistic individuals often have interoception that is quite different from what their parents or the adults in their lives are experiencing. Interoception is sensory feelings for things like nausea, too hot, too cold, and hunger.
Not being able to recognize hunger cues has its own definition. Alexithymia, a common condition autistic people experience, involves struggling to identify emotional cues, including hunger.
Autistic individuals are more susceptible to developing eating disorders and depression than their peers.
Presuming an autistic child will eat by refusing to cater to them, or meet their sensory needs, is dangerous because the truth is that they will not.
(Blog owner’s note: I cannot emphasize this point enough–and this is what we were repeatedly told by doctors. Guess what? After years of struggling with malnutrition and dehydration, my son has a g-tube and is thriving!)
Alexithymia and Autism
Alexithymia is the reason why autistic people can go at their special interests for 12 hours at a time without bothering to drink or eat anything, use the toilet, or think about anyone else. The need to eat, hydrate and relieve oneself is viewed as an inconvenience.
Encouraging children on the autism spectrum to eat new or different foods isn’t impossible, but it’s not going to look the same way it does for non-autistic people — and that’s okay.
Attempting to make them behave similarly to their non-autistic peers is only going to teach them that you love them when they’re not being themselves.
Luckily, there are ways to encourage your autistic kids to try foods they never would have before.
New Foods and Autism
Here are some ideas to get your autistic child to try new foods.
Go to food festivals, or simulate your own at home with friends/family.
This is the best way to encourage autistic kids to try new foods. Even the pickiest eater may not resist trying those chocolate broccoli muffins. Local bakeries can manage the seemingly impossible, but it’s more than that — it’s the combination of all the sensory input in the place, even if the autistic child is wearing noise-canceling headphones or earbuds.
There is also someone other than you offering them the food, and kids often behave better around other adults than their own parents. Some children may accompany their parents to food festivals or expositions, adding child-level peer pressure.
Make a goal to visit every food booth, not just the ones you or your kid might like. Eventually, they will get hungry and want a snack. Most food events don’t allow outside food, so this will be your opportunity to ask them which booth they want to get a small snack from. They’ll have to choose, which might mean trying something new.
Go to a buffet restaurant, or create your own.
Buffets are fun and allow everyone to build their own plates. While themed buffet restaurants aren’t the same today as they were 20 years ago — like Souper Salad — creating one at home works just as well.
Potential buffet themes include:
- veggie salad
- fruit salad
- movie night snacks — with freeze-dried fruit and veggies instead of popcorn, chocolate-covered fruit instead of lots of candy, smoothies instead of sodas, and a couple safe foods
Though expensive, mongolian barbecue restaurants make trying different foods fun because you curate your own meal and have the opportunity to watch it be cooked.
Each dish comes with a customization/cooking request card, and you can request onions be chopped up really tiny and sauteed to look like fried potatoes — removing the slimy, stringy onion factor.
Introduce new ways to eat samefoods.
Autistic culture has two types of foods: safefoods and samefoods. Those are not typos, but mean too many different things when written with spaces.
- Safefoods are reliable sensory foods. You know what the sensory input will be. Eating it brings comfort, joy, happiness — overall good feelings.
- Samefoods are foods you’ve become so attached to that you could eat them every day — for weeks, months or years — before burning out on it.
Preparing and serving samefoods or safefoods in different ways encourages creativity and offers alternatives later down the line.
For example, the autistic kid who eats a ham and cheese sandwich might be interested in finger sandwiches they pick up with colorful toothpicks. They might consider trying a ham and cheese roll-up sandwich made from bread, after which they might be interested in one made from a tortilla or wrap.
You can offer ranch dressing or other sauce-type fillings used in wraps for dipping until introducing a ham and cheese wrap with the sauce inside it. You can hide things in sauce, like pureed veggies with mild flavors.
Add fun, colorful variety with spinach or tomato wraps.
Later, either you will be able to introduce a new kind of wrap to your child, or they will request it. Introduce them to different meats, cheeses and other wrap fillings.
One day, they might ask for the recipe to make it themselves and be surprised that this whole time, they haven’t just been eating fried potatoes — they’ve been eating fried potatoes with onions, which they hated.
Introduce alternative ways to eat foods they dislike.
Did you know freeze-dried corn exists? The texture is much different from slippery, “regular” corn, which sticks between teeth. It’s great for snacking and some varieties taste even sweeter than actual corn, without adding sugar. While it looks like corn, it’s hard to believe that it is corn. It’s a little crunchy, but melts in your mouth.
Freeze-dried vegetables may be worth trying if your autistic kid hates raw, cooked or canned vegetables.
Other unique ways to reintroduce disliked foods:
- Blend or smash dried fruit/veggies into a fine powder, or just buy it that way, and sprinkle on top of snacks — popcorn, cupcakes, muffins, applesauce, yogurt, pudding, etc. You can create different colors like this and turn it into a rainbow craft snack.
- Allow alternative utensils, like chopsticks, and include baby and adult forks/spoons. GoBites Uno Humangear is a travel spork that can cut some foods using the spoon end. It might work well for autistic individuals who struggle with motor/dexterity.
- Allow the option to eat plated foods in bowls, and vice versa. The walls of bowls “protect” the food from getting out, which prevents messes. Plastic bowls are lighter, whereas stone and ceramic bowls are cold and easier to drop.
- Target one disliked food while searching for smoothie recipes. Any recipe with other disliked foods should be dismissed until you know they will accept it in a smoothie. Blenders are loud and may stress an autistic person out, which will make them not want the smoothie. Autistic adults and teens may struggle to self-regulate when blending their own smoothies due to small vibrations and the inhumane noise.
- Ice in smoothies doesn’t blend all the way and can disrupt sensory experience of smoothies, so opt for milk, juice or yogurt instead.
- Fruit-infused water may be your best bet when trying to turn your kids on to whole fruits instead of just eating dried fruits. Frozen fruit bars also help, but not if the whole fruit is visible.
Reintroducing disliked foods requires patience and may take several tries before they will eat it often. Start with small amounts and work your way up to one serving.
Relinquish the notion that eating needs to look a certain way and welcome playing with food back into your life. In fact, you will fight less with your autistic child if you let them play with it!
Autistic people experience life so much differently from non-autistic people, which creates the double empathy problem.
They don’t just feel and taste food with their mouth — they experience it with their nose, eyes, ears and hands.
Every action taken to eat that food is part of the eating process.
Some foods, they’re just not going to like — and that’s okay. Mushrooms, for example, are slimy and feel like worms to a lot of autistic people. Some foods will upset their stomach, but they may not have the tools to communicate that with you.
It’s not socially acceptable to play with one’s food or eat in a way others find odd — per non-autistic culture. In autistic culture, there is only one goal with food: to feed oneself.
Izzy Lively is an autistic adult who occasionally tries new foods and started eating disorder recovery in 2018. Her goal is to help autistic people increase their quality of life.