Guest Author - Tara O´Gorman, MSW
For many children with an Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), diet can be a huge challenge. Some children on the spectrum have medical feeding issues. Others are more 'picky' eaters who have strong preferences and bias toward or against certain foods. Even children who seem to have few issues with food preferences may have focus or behavioral issues due to the way their bodies and brains process certain foods.
Gastrointestinal issues such as reflux can prevent a child from being able to eat or process foods. Allergies to gluten or casein, for example, are common among children with autism. Even among children without an allergy, many are sensitive to some of the ingredients found in breads, pastas, and dairy products. Parents who suspect a food allergy or sensitivity should consult their child's pediatrician, dietician, or a natural or holistic medicine practitioner for advice, testing, or food alternatives.
Children may have oral-motor deficiencies that make feeding difficult. Pediatricians are an ideal first contact for parents who believe their child may have a feeding problem due to an oral-motor issue. Occupational therapists and speech therapists can work with a child to help determine if poor muscle control, swallowing dysfunction, or sensory issues may be causing poor feeding or limiting diet.
A lot of children with ASD are 'picky' eaters who have strong preferences and bias toward or against certain foods. When medical feeding issues have been ruled out, parents may still be frustrated with meal time and the struggle to help their children eat balanced and healthy diets. Sensory sensitivities are a challenge for many children when it comes to eating. Taste, texture, smell, and appearance can all affect a child's willingness and ability to try or enjoy a variety of foods. Oftentimes, parents will adopt a wait-and-see approach to dealing with the stress of picky eating. A lot of children go through picky-eating phases and grow out of it over time. If problems persist, however, the same professionals who work to resolve feeding issues are also excellent contacts for suggesting ideas for picky eaters.
Many parents seek dietary changes when they are looking for alternatives to other therapies or medications for behavioral challenges. Despite not having 'true' allergies to certain foods, parents often see improved behavior speech, and focus after removing gluten, casein, artificial food dyes, additives, and sweeteners from their child's diet. The Feingold diet, gluten-free/casein-free (GF/CF) diets, and other elimination diets aim to identify food sensitivities and intolerances that may be affecting mood, behavior, and other mental and physical issues.
Parents who are interested in learning more about feeding and diet challenges can contact their medical and dietary professionals or can research elimination diets online or at their local library. Whether there is a complicated medical issue involved or a desire for drug-free, low-cost ways to improve a child's diet or behavior, resources are abundant for families seeking assistance.