Strategies for Managing Mealtimes for Kids with ASDMonday, October 12 2020
Parents of children with ASD can often have difficulties in managing their child’s eating patterns. This article provides some strategies that families can try to implement to help their child and family at mealtimes.
It’s not uncommon for parents to have concerns about their child’s eating patterns. Common concerns might include the types of foods being eaten, the quantity of food consumed, being able to sit at the table and the time taken to eat. The reality is, getting your child to eat at mealtimes can be difficult – even at the best of times! However, while these concerns may come and go as your child develops, mealtimes for children with ASD can continue to be a challenge.
For children with ASD, there can be additional factors to take into consideration when managing meal times. For example, some children may experience sensory sensitivities around food including sensitivity to certain textures, smells or temperatures. This can make eating certain foods difficult and unpleasant for some children. Others may seek out certain types of food, such as crunchy foods or foods of a certain colour which can contribute to a restricted diet. Other children may have difficulties coping with change, and therefore eating different foods and in different locations may be overwhelming and anxiety-provoking.
While it can take time to work through challenges associated with mealtimes, here are some strategies you can implement now to try and make mealtimes more manageable for everyone.
Create routines around mealtimes, such as eating at set times throughout the day, or sitting at the same table. This can help to create some predictability for your child as they know when they will be eating and what the routine involves. Over time, your child may even start to become hungry at these set times too!
It can be beneficial to sit down together and model eating in front of your child. If your child is able, or learning to imitate, modelling can help to teach them how to use utensils such as spoons and forks, or try new foods. Sometimes siblings can act as a great positive role model at mealtimes too.
As mentioned, some children may experience sensory sensitivities around certain foods. Your child may prefer to eat foods of a certain texture, colour, temperature, smell, taste and/or foods that are of a specific brand. If you want to introduce new foods into your child’s diet, it can be useful to slowly and gradually expose them to new foods. You could do this by modelling eating new foods at mealtimes, having the food accessible to your child during the day or you may introduce a ‘food tolerance’ program through your child’s ABA program. When introducing a new food, we recommend choosing a food that is similar to something that your child is already eating to help them to be as successful as possible. For example, if your child will only eat a specific type of chicken nugget, work on exposing them to other brands of chicken nuggets as your first step. This may be a more successful transition compared to introducing a whole new food group.
Reinforce your child for trialing different foods, eating and sitting down during mealtimes. If your child is starting to eat a new food, you may need to start by reinforcing them for taking just one small bite, and then work towards taking two bites etc. Some families may need to start with reinforcing their child for touching a new food, or even tolerating others eating a new food around them. Whatever step you are starting with, ensure you have reinforcement ready to go.
Providing choices between two foods can be a successful way in helping them to engage in mealtimes. This provides your child with some control over what they eat, and they may be more likely to eat what they have chosen.
Make it Positive
When we’re feeling stressed, it can be difficult to even think about eating! Try to make mealtimes as calm and positive as possible so that your child is more likely to engage in eating during this time. Listening to music or having favourite toys join you for dinner can be useful for some children. Other children may prefer it to be quiet so they can focus on eating and experiencing new sensations. Try to work out what environment is needed for your child to be successful.
Don’t Give Up
Remember to re-offer foods that have previously been rejected. Research has found that it can take at least 8-9 times of trying a new food before a child may start to enjoy it!
Written by Samantha Boyle, L4Life Psychologist and Clinical Supervisor