It’s not uncommon for parents of children with autism to have questions about diet and nutrition. In part, that’s because the behavioral symptoms of autism will sometimes present quite noticeably around food and mealtimes. Additionally, many kids with autism may experience gastro-intestinal symptoms, so parents will often look for diet-related treatment to alleviate that discomfort.
There is currently no scientific evidence that diet or nutrition cause autism or that autism can somehow be “cured” by incorporating or eliminating specific foods. Instead, current therapies involving nutrition for children with autism emphasize maintaining overall wellness and comfort.
How Does Autism Impact Nutrition?
Neurodivergent conditions such as Autism Spectrum Disorder are complex. Eating a healthy diet full of fruits and vegetables is encouraged because of the inherent nutritional and wellness benefits. There’s currently no evidence that gluten or certain processed ingredients contribute to ASD symptoms.
That said, there are some aspects of autism that present as nutritional and gastrointestinal issues. This could include:
- Picky eating: Children with autism can be perceived as fussy eaters. Certain textures, colors, or strong flavors may be off-putting. As a result, it can be a challenge to ensure kids or teens with autism are getting the proper nutrition.
- Constipation: Many kids with autism report periods of constipation. This can sometimes be due to lack of activity or a restrictive diet. Whatever the cause, constipation can be quite uncomfortable, and changes in diet can often alleviate this particular symptom.
- Medication interactions: It’s not uncommon for children to take medication to help address some of the symptoms of autism. Some medications may decrease your kiddo’s appetite while others may change the way that essential vitamins and minerals are absorbed.
- Physiological issues: Some kids with autism may have what are called comorbid conditions. This is simply medical terminology that means the conditions present simultaneously, but they do not necessarily have a common cause. Children with autism will sometimes have trouble swallowing or develop food allergies, though these comorbidities are not caused by the autism.
How to Help Improve Nutrition for Children with Autism
Like all growing kids, children with ASD need a generous amount of vitamins, minerals, and nutrients in order to remain healthy. That’s why many parents will elect to work with a pediatric nutritionist who can help them navigate some common dietary challenges.
The goal of working with a nutritionist is usually twofold: to address any digestive discomfort that may be present and to improve overall nutrition. Work with a nutritionist will typically involve:
- Identifying food aversions: A dietician will work with children and parents to identify causes for specific food aversions, looking for indications that texture, taste, or color is responsible for certain dislikes.
- History: Your child’s dietician may inquire about the history of specific dietary or gastrointestinal symptoms, such as diarrhea, constipation, or body weight changes. In some cases, a dietician may recommend allergy or food sensitivity testing to be performed in conjunction with your family’s pediatrician.
- Dietary review: Before making any recommendations, your child’s dietician will want to discuss your kiddo’s current diet. Once they determine what types of foods your child is eating and which ones they aren’t, your dietician can help develop a specific meal plan. This meal plan will address any nutritional deficits that may be occurring.
Your dietician or nutritionist may also recommend conferring with a speech language pathologist to help develop supportive strategies for mealtimes and other possible behavioral or communication challenges.
How Can You Help at Home?
Working with your speech language pathologist, you can also develop reliable strategies and techniques to use in your home. Some of those strategies include the following:
- Make meal time routine: The fewer surprises you present at the table, the more comfortable your child will likely be. You don’t have to eat the same food every night, but consider having dinner around the same time every night or preparing meals that often have a similar number of components.
- Introduce new foods in a low pressure way: It’s likely your child is going to be picky. That doesn’t mean you can’t introduce new foods. It just means that it works best to introduce those foods in a low pressure way. Don’t force your kiddo to eat that new banana bread you just baked. But do offer. Sometimes even just the exposure to the idea of new foods can be really helpful. Start with small bites and small portions of new foods.
- Create a positive and supportive environment: Mealtimes can be particularly stressful for children–and that includes for children with ASD. Your child’s speech language pathologist can help your family practice how to model encouraging behaviors and provide positive reinforcement.
Ultimately, every child is unique and will have individualized needs. That’s why your dietician and speech language pathologist will help you develop a plan that’s customized for your child and their nutritional requirements.
Dietary Needs Will Change Over Time
You don’t have the same dietary needs you did when you were a teen or a toddler. So you shouldn’t expect your child’s dietary needs to stay the same either–with or without autism. This means that your work with a speech therapist and/or nutritionist may continue over time. As your kiddo’s needs change, you’ll be able to adjust their diet accordingly.
Meeting any child’s unique dietary needs may take a thoughtful and individualized approach, along with positive support from family members. But improving your kiddo’s nutrition can help forge positive habits and create a strong foundation for continuing wellness.
If you want to talk to a speech language pathologist, you can start with a free and confidential 15 minute phone consultation with our offices–so you can get your most pressing questions answered. If you’d like to schedule an appointment for therapy, please contact us.