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Autism and picky eaters

A child diagnosed with autism can have various strengths and challenges. We often hear about a limited diet, and strong preferences for certain tastes, and textures, and the overall "look" of the food can be very specific. Addressing a child's feeding skills is an area we support in occupational therapy. Picky eating is not limited to the sensory components of food/drinks, the motor skills required to break down food are largely overlooked. The family history of mealtimes, parents as co-regulators, the dynamics at the table, understanding a child's sensory processing skills, and a good understanding of their motor skills are necessary to be able to support any child with feeding challenges.

Occupational therapists can:

  1. Gather your family history, and obtain relevant information regarding how your child managed feeding as a baby to the current age. Feeding therapy requires an extensive understanding of your child's developmental history and family dynamics to know "where" to go next.

  2. A holistic approach to evaluation/assessment and treatment. Any past stressors or traumatic events are crucial to be aware of when supporting children with feeding challenges. A child's relationships around food are just as important as their relationships with the adults who support them.

  3. A sensory assessment provides more data on how your child processes information. We can then adapt and provide specific sensory integration techniques that work for your child in the treatment sessions. As mentioned above, picky eating isn't always about sensory however we can utilize a child's sensory strengths and self-regulation skills to help support them at mealtimes.

4. A child with autism will require repetition and regulation to help with making any kind of progress with trying new foods. There is a great program called "SOS Approach to Feeding" This program has a wealth of information to support families with children who identify as picky eaters. There are specific resources for families with children with autism as well.

You can also locate a trained SOS therapist on the website to find support in your area. It's always helpful to find a therapist who has additional training in feeding therapy.

5. There are also other avenues to explore with children with autism such as behavioral strategies that you know work well for them. Not all children will work well with behavioral strategies depending on their history and experience with a rewards system. The importance is knowing when a strategy is helpful and when a strategy causes more stress/dysregulation. An open communication system with your therapist is important to help with progressing around food exploration.

6. Also, trust your gut and intuition as a parent!!

I have met extraordinary families who are very in sync with their children's needs and are very good at implementing small, consistent, and positive changes for their children.

Navigating the world of picky eating in children with autism can be challenging, but it's important to remember that progress is possible with patience, persistence, and tailored strategies. Find yourself a support team of specialists in feeding that can support your journey and bring more joy into eating with your child.

As an occupational therapist in pediatrics, I strive to understand the unique sensory and motor needs of each child to make mealtimes more enjoyable and less stressful. By focusing on sensory integration, adaptive tools, motor skills development, and supporting the whole family in this process, we can children expand their repertoire and improve their relationship with food.

There is a multitude of resources out there to support your child with feeding. If you need help finding a resource or finding a therapist near you, feel free to reach out and we can help direct you to a resource near you.

Thank you for your time,

Jessica Earle, occupational therapist

New Leaf Occupational Therapy, Owner - providing feeding therapy support to children and families located in Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and by telehealth to Manitoba residents.

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New Leaf Occupational Therapy

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