Got an autistic picky eater on your hands? Contrary to the top recommendation, people on the autism spectrum will not eat whatever if they’re hungry enough. Here’s how to expand the diet of your picky eater with autism.
Tips for autistic picky eaters
1. Try the food in different ways.
Let your picky autistic child play with their food. Offer a sunflower seed butter sandwich without the crust, cut into triangles and squares. Give your kid their fruit in a smoothie.
Fulfill sensory needs
Food is about more than nutrition — it’s cultural and social. When you’re autistic, it’s also about fulfilling sensory needs or avoiding certain sensory input.
A few food-related sensory inputs include:
- chew factor
- sticky/messy foods
The grape exercise allows your child to communicate their sensory needs to you even if they don’t have the words to explain it themselves.
Create three groups of grapes: whole, halved and peeled. Place each in front of your child to explore. Which do they prefer?
Here’s what that preference means:
- Whole grapes are like soft Skittles, but harder than tapioca pearls. They’re slightly crunchy, but burst with flavor akin to Fruit Gushers. Your child may enjoy having them in their mouth due to the sensory input of the various textures.
They might be open to trying cherry tomatoes, blueberries, cranberries or pomegranate arils.
- Halved grapes are more consistent in texture, like boiled egg whites and apples. There’s just enough of a crunch, without being too crunchy. The sensory input of two textures combined is its own unique sensory input.
Your child may be interested in trying olives, raisins, corn or peas with a dash of sugar, or rice.
- Peeled grapes are slimy, wrinkly and bumpy. They don’t hide anything about what they are, so you know what to expect. They’re fun to experience in your mouth, too.
An autistic picky eater may also like various pasta dishes made with different types of noodles, tomatoes, mushrooms, peaches, and squishy vegetables like canned green beans.
If they don’t touch the grapes, offer utensils — it might be too sticky. You can also try with other foods they like that have different textures, or with different types of grapes.
2. Offer alternative utensil options, or no utensils at all.
If your picky, autistic eater isn’t eating at all or hardly eats anything you put in front of them, the goal is not table manners. Enforcing them to eat at a table at all isn’t productive, either. The goal is to get them to eat.
Eating utensils provide certain sensory input that may not be enjoyable, as do finger foods. Kids with sensory sensitivities might not eat sloppy joes because they hate the messiness.
Try both metal and plastic silverware.
Metal utensils are heavy, skinny, oddly textured, and feel bad when they hit your teeth or your accidentally bite them. Plastic utensils are lightweight, though they also break easily.
Humangear GoBites camping sporks come in a few different colors, are dishwasher-safe, and double-ended. The fork end works like a butter knife, without being too sharp. It is a good option for anyone who struggles with fine motor skills, finds metal silverware too skinny or heavy, and wants a grownup alternative to baby utensils. My three have lasted for two years so far, with daily use.
Baby spoons and forks make eating fun sometimes. They’re also smaller than adult silverware, which run big naturally unless you go for specific brands (like IKEA’s small utensils set).
Chopsticks are fun and great for finger foods.
The sticky factor may cause your autistic picky eater’s food aversion. Their instinct is to wipe it off, but then their clothes get sticky and you have a screaming child on your hands.
Chopsticks stimulate the brain and assist with dexterity. They’re perfect for fruit, like grapes and apples, popcorn and similar snacks, and most everyday meals.
Utensils not required
Your child is autistic. They’re not the “normal” neurotype as their non-autistic peers. The goal is for them to eat.
Instead of utensils, let them just use their hands. Let them eat soup by drinking it. Put chips or popcorn in a small bowl and let them eat “like a dog” with their mouths.
This method isn’t socially appropriate, but it’s one that many autistic adults have adapted to doing in the privacy of their own spaces because the goal is to eat. Eating with your mouth is most convenient when you’re hungry, but your special interest takes priority.
3. Hide veggies and other nutrients in their food.
If your autistic picky eater refuses to touch new foods, forcing them to eat something is going to traumatize them. It’s not worth it. Instead, hide veggies and protein in their food or make simple ingredient swaps.
- Smoothies, brownies, pasta and muffins are perfect for hiding veggies.
- Opt for lentil or veggie pasta, instead of wheat pasta. Flood the dish with their favorite flavor, like cheese.
- Sunflower seed butter protein balls, and sunflower seed butter cups with hemp seeds in the filling make great, protein-filled snacks.
- Make your own chia seed drinks with fruit and veggie juice.
- Fried shredded potatoes with finely chopped onions are indistinguishable. Start small, about 1/8 cup onions to 1 cup potatoes. If you can point out the cooked onions yourself, chop them smaller or include less. Season with salt.
- Look for toddler-friendly recipes, even if your autistic child isn’t one. Some autistic adults rely on these recipes to feed themselves.
- Zucchini is tasteless; add it to homemade popsicles.
4. Allow opportunity for intuitive, child-led eating.
Your child’s pediatrician or behavior therapist might claim “they’ll eat if they’re hungry enough” — no, they will not. Autistic and similarly neurodivergent individuals struggle with eating disorders due to sensory sensitivities and underlying health issues.
Intuitive eating will help your child develop healthy eating habits driven by their body’s hunger cues, which will help create healthy food boundaries without the use of rewards. Rewards should never be involved with food, especially because neurodivergent individuals are already susceptible to disordered eating.
At first, your child might eat up all the sweets they can find because it’s the “forbidden fruit” and they want what they can’t have. By making both sugary foods and nutritional foods available, you’re removing the power of that forbidden fruit. You don’t crave foods you get everyday.
Food cravings while eating intuitively look like opening a can of peas for a snack. When you’re autistic, it also means fulfilling your sensory needs with zero rules.
5. Involve your child in the food prep process.
Montessori play activities give children access to the real thing. Toddlers on social media are cooking their own snacks.
Letting your autistic children partake in creating their own snacks and meals can give them a sense of accomplishment, while building vital life skills. By teaching them how to crack an egg and including them around the smells of the kitchen, you can desensitize certain sensory elements sooner.
Questions parents of autistic picky eaters ask
When it comes to feeding a picky eater with autism, think outside the box of societal expectations to accommodate your child. Building healthy eating habits now will ensure they grow into a healthy autistic adult!