Having an autistic child can bring many unique joys and challenges to your family. Sometimes children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) develop difficulties with feeding. Being able to feed your child is a top priority for all parents, so when feeding becomes challenging, a seemingly simple activity can suddenly feel daunting. In an effort to help families feel more equipped to address feeding concerns, we’ve compiled a list of the top 4 most frequently asked feeding questions for autistic children.

Please note the difficulties each child may face are unique. If you have concerns about your child’s feeding skills, please speak with your doctor about whether a feeding evaluation through Connecticut Children’s would help.

1. My child is a picky eater. How can I increase the variety of foods they will eat?

  • Gradually expose your child to foods that are similar to the ones they already eat.  These foods should be similar in shape, color, and appearance. Use pleasant and playful interactions, such as messy food play. Important:  When you first expose your child to a new food, do not expected them to eat it!  Allowing your child to explore new food through their other senses (vision, touch, smell) helps them to accept the taste of the food later.  
  • Expand food play by having your child conduct “science experiments” to alter the foods they like.  For example, if your child puts a few drops of blue food coloring into their favorite vanilla yogurt, will it still smell and taste the same?
  • Have your child be an active participant in meal prep by helping to prepare foods (stirring, placing into serving platters, cleaning vegetables) and aiding in clean-up routines. This will increase interaction with foods (appearance and smells) without expecting your child to taste or eat the food.
  • Don’t be discouraged if your child does not seem interested for the first few exposures. It may take some time to develop greater interest and comfort with new foods. Be sure to acknowledge and praise your child’s efforts to explore the foods, no matter how small the effort may seem.

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2. My child will gag at the smell/taste/texture/appearance of a certain food. What can I do?

There can be many reasons why your child is gagging, which may require evaluation by the Connecticut Children’s Feeding Team. Here are some things you can try:

  • If your child doesn’t have a medical reason for gagging, expose them gradually to the foods during non-mealtimes. This can help decrease the gag response.
  • If your child gags at the sight of real food, have them look at pictures of that particular food in books or magazines before interacting with the food. Once they tolerate this approach, move on to interacting with play food. Your child can pretend to prepare and/or serve a meal to other family members. After this, slowly increase exposure and interactions with real food. Remember that it may take a long time for your child to feel comfortable smelling or tasting the food and that’s ok. 
  • Staying calm, and even offering encouragement (“you’re doing great”, “you’re so brave”, or applause with younger children) during gagging can help make an uncomfortable experience a little less unpleasant.
Young child indicating she's not hungry

3. Is it okay to “sneak foods” into my child’s meals? How many times should I offer a refused food?

Short answer: not really. Here’s why.

  • It’s tempting to hide a new or non-preferred food in a preferred food, or fib about what the food really is. However, you should avoid doing so. It is better to slowly expose your child to the foods using the strategies outlined in question 1.
  • It can also be tempting to stop introducing a new food after your child refuses it. However, it’s actually best to continue to offer refused foods. Children often need repeated exposures to a food before it is accepted. Remember, exposures that involve smelling the food or touching one’s tongue to the food can help to make good progress toward accepting it. Don’t give up! 

4. My doctor says my child is growing fine despite being a picky eater and that I should not worry. Should I still be concerned about my child’s nutrition?

Because all of us have food preferences, it’s okay for your child to have some foods that they dislike. Also, some level of pickiness is normal for young children.

However, if your child has eliminated an entire food group (such as dairy, meats, vegetables and fruits, and/or grains) they could be at risk for being low in certain nutrients.

Make sure you tell your child’s doctor about your child’s diet in detail, including any specific food groups they continue to refuse. If you’re still concerned after talking to your child’s doctor, you can ask them for a referral to a Connecticut Children’s registered dietitian who can determine whether your child is getting enough nutrition.

Originally posted on July 5, 2017. Updated April 4, 2022 by the following Connecticut Children’s specialists:

  • Jennifer Twachtman-Bassett, Autism Clinical Specialist and Research Coordinator
  • Jeanne Kagan, Occupational Therapy
  • Caitlin Silliman, Occupational Therapy
  • Kerri Byron, Speech/Language Pathology