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Over the next few weeks, I’ll be sharing reader questions from my Positive Parenting Solutions guest blog appearance. Read all the questions and my answers here.

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Q: Our biggest challenge: getting our three-year-old to eat solid food, rather than stage 3 baby food mixed with toddler ravioli or spaghetti. He is so tired of eating it, but he is too afraid of trying real people food. Breakfast is always baby food oatmeal, yogurt, and applesauce. Lunchtime is peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and yogurt. We’re hoping that one day he will eventually get over his apprehensions. We’re taking baby steps with his ABA therapist at dinnertime—Cheerio-sized chicken nuggets. He puts it in his mouth but then spits it out..

A: The drive we mothers have to feed our children is so primal. When thwarted, we cannot help but feel some sense of panic, helplessness, fear, anxiety. My own son had (still has) a very limited palette, but learned to eat a balanced if narrow diet. His childhood was nearly free of colds and viral illnesses, so we can say it worked. Your son is on his way to eating a balanced vegetarian diet — protein (peanut butter, yogurt), fruit (applesauce), grains (bread, oatmeal, pasta). These are “real people foods,” so one small step in getting him to expand his palette is to abandon language that makes him feel belittled or babyish. I always remind adults that they too have food preferences, and don’t appreciate having them second-guessed or dissed.

You’ve identified the key issue, that your son is afraid of new foods. Now, why? It’s unlikely he “will eventually get over his apprehension” without identifying and addressing the source of his fear. For many children with autism, hypersensitive taste and smell can be major impediments to eating, but so can temperature and texture. Here’s a story I love (names changed), from a mom who got her son to try new foods through tactile exploration. That’s right, playing with his food.

“After seven weeks of opportunities to explore the texture and temperature of a hardboiled egg both warm and cold, Michael asked for a one  and ate the outer part of it. I’d let him play with eggs as food and as colored Easter eggs. We made a book about eggs and I cleaned up several hardboiled eggs that didn’t make it to the tasting goal. We put no pressure on him to taste the egg. He smashed an egg because he needed to feel the inedible shell along with the edible part of the egg. He was playing with the yolk, rolling tiny pieces like play dough. I put an egg on his plate. He grabbed it and ate it. Through having certain foods on his plate and allowing him to explore tactilely first, he now eats grapes, ice cream, baked potato, salad, fish, peas, corn, beans.” My own Bryce, pictured here, decided to put spaghetti in his pocket before eating it.

Observe what your son already likes and build incrementally from there, i.e. oatmeal >> soggy Cheerios >> crunchy Cheerios. Yogurt >> blended cottage cheese >> cottage cheese. Don’t fall into the trap of assuming your child will or should like certain foods just because other kids do. For instance, many children with autism don’t like meat (strong smell, chewy or stringy texture, animal-y taste, bloody or odd-shaped appearance, taste or smell of additives/sauces/condiments), so we can’t assume your little guy will like chicken nuggets not matter how popular they are with the general kid population.

If you haven’t already, have a speech therapist or doctor rule out structural issues. Your son might be having difficulties swallowing, which can induce fear of choking.

For issues involving taste and smell, an occupational therapist versed in autism can be an enormous help to you.

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4 Responses to “Blue-plate special for autism “picky” eaters: Respect with a side of patience, sensory exploration”

  1. Cathy Mealey says:

    My son hit double digits before he was really ready to explore unfamiliar foods. We got a lot of great help from a variety of therapists and online sources.

    One tip that worked well was to cut a very, very small piece of food from his plate, and put it on the tip of a toothpick. He could then place the item in the pouch of his cheek or near his back teeth and feel ‘safe’ experiencing the taste and texture. We gradually increased to larger pieces and he would willingly spear and taste them.

    Just a suggestion! Obviously – using toothpicks requires adult supervision.

  2. Sarah says:

    I’ve searched your blog to get some ideas for my son on the “picky” eating issue. He is five and is really limited to crunchy/salty/junk food. So, I understand the wanting to let them explore on their own and eventually eat things, but this just has not been working for us for the past two years through OT and at home. He’ll play and play and play, and sometimes with rewards he’ll even put in his mouth and chew but he knows exactly when he hits ten chews and spits it out. Right now the only way he gets fruits and vegetables is by drinking V8 Fusion every day. So, what do you do if the limited palate (which I get, I don’t like every single thing either and would have to be literally starving before I ate a mushroom) does not include anything healthy? When he was a small child with a fresh diagnosis, I didn’t want to go the “If he’s hungry, he’ll eat it” route because it just didn’t feel right with so many sensory and also food allergy issues involved. But he is a very smart little boy and I’m pretty sure he’s figured out what he can get away with and I think it might be time to challenge him a bit. So, where is the happy medium between “just let him eat what he’s willing to eat” and “he eats this or he eats nothing?” I never thought I’d be a mom that let my kid eat so much junk but here we are and I need some guidance! OT is just really stagnant right now.

  3. Ellen says:

    I heartily recommend Dr. Dina Rose’s brilliant book, “It’s Not About the Broccoli.” It’s not aimed specifically at kids with autism, but it carefully lays out a different approach that brims with common sense, and she provides numerous real-life examples. Resist the urge to think “it won’t work for my kid,” read it all the way through, and take what you can use.

  4. Sarah says:

    Thank you, Ellen, I will check it out! Common sense is what I’m looking for. And you’re right, “it won’t work for my kid” is never a good thing to think until you’ve tried. Sometimes I don’t give him enough credit. And I’m starting to think he’s figured that out and is learning how to play it to his advantage (and continue to eat chicken nuggets night after night!). Once again, thank you so much for being so generous with your time to answer me. You’ve guided me through more than one issue and I’ve come to think of you as a mentor who’s been through it and has the wonderful grown sons to show for it.

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