Issues and Children with Autism
By The May Institute
My 5-year-old son has autism. He has always been a picky eater,
but his eating habits seem to be getting worse. How can I get him
to eat better?
"Eating disorders are common in all children," says Colleen
OLeary Zonarich, M.A., BCBA, Senior Educational Consultant
for School Consultation and Family Support Services at May Institute.
"Nearly half of all typically developing children experience
eating problems at some point during their childhood. While experts
in the field are trying to better determine the number of children
with feeding issues, and what causes those issues, researchers have
suggested that up to 90 percent of children with developmental disabilities
such as autism have issues with food."
to Zonarich, typically developing children with feeding issues often
outgrow them, while children with disabilities do not. For these
children, systematic intervention and collaborative efforts are
the best ways to promote better eating habits and improved their
friends may suggest that if you let your child get hungry enough,
he or she will eventually eat. Unfortunately, this is not always
the case," Zonarich warns. "Children with special needs
require special intervention."
with autism have many different types of feeding issues including
over-eating, food selectivity (eating only certain foods), food
refusal, and pica (eating non-edible items). In addition, they often
have problems sucking, chewing, and swallowing, and may be unable
to feed themselves. Disruptive behavior such as tantrums, spitting,
and pushing or throwing food away also contributes to feeding and
nutrition is the primary concern for all children," says Zonarich.
"Children with developmental disabilities may need a food
intervention team to help ensure they get adequate nutrition.
This team often includes parents, physicians, a nutritionist, school
nurse, teachers/paraprofessionals, physical, occupational, and speech
therapists, and a behavior analyst."
implementing an intervention program that is tailored for the individual
child, the team will first rule out any medical issues. They will
come to consensus about long-term goals, supports needed for families
and school teams (i.e., materials, staff, environmental/food preparation)
when to begin intervention, and how to collect and share information.
The team also takes responsibility for providing a structured environment
and functional mealtime routine, and any necessary adaptive equipment
(i.e., seating arrangements, special utensils or bowls; suggested
deciding which foods to target, and how much of them to offer to
the child, the team determines the best approach for ensuring increased
acceptance of foods and drinks. Different strategies include systematic
sampling of new foods, rewarding children for accepting new foods,
and providing assistance with eating. The team may also try repeated
presentations of new foods, blending new foods with already accepted
foods and textures, and/or peer modeling of others eating the new
a new food is accepted, its important to put a maintenance
program in place to ensure continuing progress," Zonarich explains.
"With an effective plan in place, a consistent approach, and
a lot of patience, mealtime can become a more enjoyable experience
for children with autism and their families."
Institute is a national nonprofit organization that provides educational,
rehabilitative, and behavioral healthcare services to individuals
with autism and other developmental disabilities, brain injury,
mental illness, and behavioral healthcare needs. May Institute operates
six schools for children and adolescents with autism and other developmental
disabilities in Chatham, Randolph, West Springfield, and Woburn,
Mass., Freeport, Maine, and Santa Cruz, Calif. For more information,
call 800-778-7601, or visit www.mayinstitute.org.
information presented on this site is intended solely as a general
educational aid, and is neither medical nor healthcare advice for
any individual problem, nor a substitute for medical or other professional
advice and services from a qualified healthcare provider familiar
with your unique circumstances. Always seek the advice of your physician
or other qualified healthcare professional regarding any medical
condition and before starting any new treatment.