Autism Q&A: Addressing Barriers to Nutrition

The STAR team talked with Sibylle Kranz, an associate professor and registered dietician, to get ideas for helping children with autism improve their eating habits.

Audrey Breen

March is National Nutrition Month, a time to focus on improving nutritional habits to include healthier foods, live an active lifestyle, and improve overall mental and physical health and wellbeing.

Up to ninety percent of children with autism have varying levels of maladaptive eating habits, such as severe food selectivity, rapid eating, and food rejection. These habits can affect overall nutrition and increase health risks.

The Supporting Transformative Autism Research team talked with Sibylle Kranz, an associate professor and researcher in the UVA School of Education and Human Development Department of Kinesiology, to get ideas for helping children with autism improve their eating habits.

Q: How can we get children to eat healthier foods?

Children with ASD commonly prefer foods that do not have strong odor, taste, smell and coarse texture, and so preparation methods matter. Stealth nutrition – hiding the healthier foods in already accepted foods – can be very successful. The key is to increase the amount of the healthier foods slowly since they might change taste and texture.

Parental modeling is critical. Children learn food intake behavior through trial and error and through copying the food intake of the people around them.

Q: How can I encourage my child to try more new foods?

Including children in food preparation and making “fun foods” such as a healthy pizza with a funny face (whole grain crust, tomato sauce cheeks), can be very powerful in overcoming the natural fear of eating something unknown.

Q: What's the best way to address sensory issues with food texture?

Trial and error can help. Some foods alter texture quickly, depending on the temperature of the food. So experimenting with temperature is one way to change the mouthfeel.

Some individuals prefer crunchy foods, and other like soft foods better. So, adopting the dish or food to the texture that is accepted can be very helpful. For example, you could make kale chips in the oven if crunchy is liked or try mashing or blending foods when soft is preferred. Again, involving the child in the process can help a lot.

Q: What are tips for families helping selective eaters?

It takes on average 12-15 exposures to a new food for children to accept the food, so patience is key. Truly selective eaters might need a lot more exposures.

It's important not to put pressure on the child. Ask the child to try the food, but they don’t have to finish it. Maybe at first just ask them to smell it. If that seems okay, then they might lick it or take a mini bite.

This article was originally published in the monthly STAR newsletter. Subscribe and stay up to date on the latest research and resources.

Supporting Transformative Autism Research

The STAR initiative is led by the School of Education and Human Development and in partnership with colleagues across the University. STAR aims to improve the lives of individuals with autism through groundbreaking research and innovative models for intervention and training. 

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