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Nourishing Neurodiversity: Nutrition and Autism - Strategies for Dealing with Picky Eaters

Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is a neurodevelopmental condition characterized by a wide range of challenges, including differences in communication, social interaction, and behavior. Nutrition plays a crucial role in supporting the overall health and well-being of individuals with autism. However, many children with ASD can be selective or "picky" eaters, making it challenging for caregivers to ensure they receive a balanced diet. In this blog post, we will explore the relationship between nutrition and autism and provide practical strategies for dealing with picky eaters.

Understanding the Link Between Autism and Nutrition

1. Nutrient Deficiencies: Children with autism may be at a higher risk for nutrient deficiencies due to their selective eating habits. Common deficiencies include vitamins D, B6, and B12, as well as essential minerals like magnesium and zinc. These nutrients are essential for overall health and cognitive development. Here is a little more information regarding children with supportive needs and nutrient deficiencies.

2. Gastrointestinal Issues: Some individuals with autism may experience gastrointestinal problems such as constipation, diarrhea, or food sensitivities. Addressing these issues through dietary adjustments can significantly improve their quality of life. The NIH discusses how gastrointestinal issues can severely affect children in regard to their feeding issues. For more information, please click here.

3. Sensory Sensitivities: Sensory sensitivities are common in individuals with autism. These sensitivities can affect how certain foods taste, smell, or feel in the mouth, leading to food aversions. The Children’s Nutritionist is a fantastic resource for more information on dealing with children with sensory issues surrounding eating.

little girl eating a huge slice of watermelon with her hands

Strategies for Dealing with Picky Eaters

1. Seek Professional Guidance: If your child has a limited diet due to sensory sensitivities or other factors, consider consulting a registered dietitian or a nutritionist with experience in working with individuals with autism. They can help you create a personalized nutrition plan.

2. Gradual Exposure: Introduce new foods slowly and gradually. Start with small portions and offer foods with different textures, colors, and flavors to help your child become more comfortable with variety.

3. Visual Supports: Use visual supports like picture charts or mealtime schedules to provide structure and predictability during meals. Visual aids can help children with autism understand what to expect and reduce anxiety around mealtime. is a great website for visual supports and guides related to trying new foods. They have a lot of other resources as well.

4. Sensory-Friendly Meals: Adapt meals to accommodate sensory sensitivities. For example, if your child is sensitive to certain textures, consider blending or pureeing vegetables into sauces or smoothies. Special Strong has several great ideas for sensory friendly meals for the kids, (and adults too!)

5. Positive Reinforcement: Encourage positive eating behaviors through praise and rewards. Praise your child for trying new foods or for eating a variety of items. Be patient and avoid using food as a punishment.

little girl messily eating spaghetti wit it all over her hands and face

6. Consistency: Maintain a consistent mealtime routine. Children with autism often thrive on predictability, so having regular meal and snack times can help create a sense of security.

7. Food Chaining: This technique involves introducing new foods that are similar in taste or texture to foods your child already enjoys. Gradually, you can expand their palate by making small changes. For more information about food chaining please click here.

8. Cooking Together: Involve your child in meal preparation. Cooking together can be a fun and educational experience that can increase their interest in trying new foods. Check out this article from the Children’s Hospital of Orange County for tips on cooking with your child with supportive needs.

9. Food Supplements: If nutrient deficiencies are a concern, consult with a healthcare provider about the use of dietary supplements. Supplements should only be used under professional guidance.

Nutrition is a critical component of overall health, and it plays a vital role in the lives of individuals with autism. Dealing with picky eaters can be challenging, but with patience, persistence, and the right strategies, it is possible to expand their dietary choices and ensure they receive the nutrients they need. Remember that each child with autism is unique, so what works for one may not work for another. Seek professional guidance and tailor your approach to your child's specific needs. Ultimately, the goal is to support their well-being and nourish their neurodiversity.

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