Autism affects every area of a person’s life, even the daily arena of eating. Many children who are not diagnosed on the autism spectrum simply pick up their fork and start eating, even thought they might be inclined to skip over the greens. There are no triggers about mealtime that would disturb the enjoyment of eating good food shared by the family. This is typically not the case with children on the autism spectrum. Mealtime can be another event of stress. Not only for the autistic child, but also for the parent and/or caregiver who must deal with the situation daily so his or her child gets the nutrients they need. What is usually a pleasant winding down of the day and interacting with family members is often an unpleasant ordeal for the autistic child.
Many autistic children have sensory issues, and these issues can be aggravated at the dinner table. Food has a mixture of smells, flavors, textures, and appearance. A child with autism reacts to all of this sensory input, some more severely than others. As a result, the autistic child just may opt not to eat, to eat very little, or to eat the same things over and over again, and it is not often the case that spinach and carrots are the foods that an autistic child (any child) wants to always eat. No, favored items are things like chicken nuggets and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. So along with the lack of variety and even the refusal to eat enough is a concern for the autistic child’s health and nutritional intake.
There are other factors of autism that can make dinner time a challenge for the child and the parent or caregiver. It is typical for a child with autism to not like dinnertime because of the surprise factor of unknown meal contents and the lack of control the child feels. This can produce anxiety, and social anxiety is already stimulated from the presence of other people gathered at the table to eat and talk. The motor skills and coordination required to eat can also be an issue that makes mealtime a series of stressors for a child on the autism spectrum.
But, there are ways to meet each of the challenges that autism presents head on, and to get nutritious food into bodies. Jean Nicol, who was a special education teacher for 25 years, created The Eating Game for the specific purpose of getting autistic children and other “picky eaters” to eat healthier food and more of it. The Eating Game comes with a 3-ring binder, 4 sets of pictures, 2 presentation pages for food choices, and 5 Daily Planning Charts with six meals based on Canada’s Food Guide (plus Suggestions to Get Started and Suggestions for Use).
This eating program makes eating fun for kids with autism, and it’s visual and hands on. Meeting the need to control, the autistic child can plan their own meals by sticking the pictures of the foods they want onto a planning chart. This also gives the child a sense of security as meal planning becomes routine. The Eating Game is $99 and comes in English and French. The new digital version is available for $24, in both English and French.
In addition to The Eating Game, there are other techniques that have worked to get autistic children to eat healthy, which will be discussed in the next article.
You can find out more about The Eating Game by visiting their website.