How to handle mealtime?
Mealtimes can be a very tough time for autistic children and their parents alike. Here are some tips to make mealtimes more comfortable for everyone involved.
Rule out other problems
Make sure that your child’s discomfort with food is not due to some other factors like acid reflux, dental cavities, etc. Check with a doctor to rule out any other issues your child might be facing.
Ease into mealtimes
Try to make mealtimes as relaxed as possible before introducing food to your child. Often, your child may have food related fears or anxieties, and these can be made worse by pushy parents who try to force food on their children. By having a relaxing ritual like deep breathing before mealtime, you can help ease some of your child’s fear and anxiety around food.
Have meals together
By eating together as a family, you can help develop environmental cues to remind your child what is expected of them at mealtime. Autistic children thrive on routine, and by sitting at the same table at a set time together, you can reinforce this routine until it becomes habit. Children also learn by imitation, so your child is more likely to eat at mealtimes if they see everyone else doing it.
Autistic children have a poor sense of body awareness, and often have poorly developed stomach core and back muscles. As a result, they may slouch or slump over at mealtimes, which may cause difficulty swallowing or digesting food. Try to support your child’s back with pillows or prop their feet up with a footstool at mealtime.
Gradual exposure to new foods
For autistic children, the fear around food can be very real. Some children might be afraid of the bright colours of some fruits or dislike their texture. These fears can be slowly and gradually overcome by gently exposing them to the foods in question. For instance, you can first work on them being comfortable with the food’s presence with them in the same room, then work on touching it with a fork, before finally building up their confidence to touch it with their own hands.
Set regular mealtimes
As mentioned previously, autistic children love routine. By eliminating snacking and grazing between meals, you can train their hunger instincts to only expect food at mealtimes and thus increase the likelihood that they will accept food at these times.
Diversify your child’s diet
If your child already has a tolerance to a certain type of food, try to make small changes that are within your child’s comfort zone to expand their diet. For instance, if your child already likes spaghetti, try to slowly switch spaghetti brands, or have spaghetti with a sauce. In this way, you maintain an element of food that your child is comfortable with while simultaneously exposing them to new foods. Just make sure that the change is small and gradual. Encourage your child to play with and explore new foods to slowly build their comfort level.
Concentrate on the food and not on your child’s behavior
Try your best to ignore your child’s behavior at the dinner table and divert your child’s attention back to the food instead. Instead, try to engage them and the rest of your family in questions about the food and how it looks, tastes, or smells.