Many families have a veggie-loathing, chicken nuggets-only, no-foods-touching, picky eater in their midst. But families of children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) are even more likely than most to experience mealtime struggles. It’s estimated that 44% to 89% of children with ASD have feeding challenges such as food selectivity, disruptive feeding behaviors, gagging, or overeating.
Thanksgiving is around the corner and Verbal Beginnings wants to try and ease the transition with new foods and help make this the best holiday yet! We talked to the Director of our Healthy Beginnings program, Ben Sarcia, to help disseminate more information and give you some tips and tricks.
Most commonly, a child will eliminate multiple food groups, says Sarcia. “Usually, we get kids who will eat chips, crackers, and French fries and nothing else,” he says.
As food preferences become more rigid, a negative cycle begins. The Family starts cooking separate meals for the child and grudgingly toting the preferred foods to outings at restaurants, family gatherings, or on vacation. More often than not, they also begin worrying about how this selective eating will affect their child’s health. Sometimes, attempts to fill nutritional gaps can compound the problem. “We also get kids who are dependent on [nutritional drinks],” Sarcia says. Kids may drink as many as five or six bottles a day and begin to put on excess weight because of calories.
There are no winners in these fraught dinner table battles. The family is frazzled, and the kids— despite eating only what they want—aren’t happy either. “We have a lot of kids with really poor diets. You can tell they’re hungry and miserable,” Sarcia says. Many experience digestive distress and sleep disruptions. “They don’t feel good and they don’t learn. They’re not meeting their goals in early intervention,” he says.
For families looking to extricate themselves from this daily food fight, there are several evidence-based Applied Behavioral Analysis (ABA) therapy strategies designed to slowly introduce new foods to build a more varied diet. “We don’t force children to eat. We do have very effective ways of prompting and motivating them,” Sarcia explains. Below are some tips to help start the process.
Pick your target. Introduce a single target food. “I personally find it easier to start with lower texture foods, like applesauce, yogurt, pudding, or mashed potatoes,” Sarcia says. If you opt for a solid food, cut it into small pieces to prevent choking, and avoid potential hazards like hot soup. Another good starter candidate is a food that your child used to eat but stopped. Try to avoid extras like condiments and sauces. A child may perceive a hot dog with ketchup as not one but two new foods. “Simpler is better,” he says.
Time it right. The best time of day to introduce a new food is in the morning, when the child is fresh and hasn’t eaten yet. Set a timer for three, five, or ten minutes. If the child eats a bite, end the session and wait to present the food again the next day or at the next meal. If they reject the food, abandon the effort for the day when the timer goes off. Don’t dwell on the refusal or discuss it.
Offer rewards. Granting access to a favorite toy or offering praise and clapping can motivate a child to take a bite. But only provide the reward if the child accomplishes the goal, which is not only tasting but swallowing the food. Allowing a child to simply lick or taste the food and spit it out can be counterproductive, Sarcia says. Giving them the reward item when the goal is not met reinforces negative behavior. “That kid just learns, ‘Hey, if I have a little tantrum, then that’s my way of getting what I want and getting out of what I don’t want,’” says the expert.
Stay the course. The need to reinforce every bite of a new food with a reward can be time consuming and frustrating, but consistency does typically get results. If efforts aren’t consistent, or caregivers aren’t on the same page, progress may be lost. “Often we hear, ‘Yeah, we did it for a couple of weeks at home, but it was time consuming and we stopped and now we’re back to where we started,’” Sarcia says.
Know when to get help. Early intervention can help derail a budding feeding problem, which can often start as early as age two, Sarcia says. “It’s a lot easier for us to work with a three-year-old than an eight-year-old,” he notes. Ultimately, working through feeding challenges is not a quick fix. “You’re not going to drop your kid off for therapy and have this problem solved,” he asserts. “You have to put in the time. But if you put in the effort now, it’s going to save you a lot of time in the long run.”
If you need more help with your child, consider our Healthy Beginnings program! To learn more, click the link below!
We hope you have a happy and easy Thanksgiving!
This article was written by Kelly Bilodeau with Content Worx.