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Strategies to Improve your Child’s Feeding Challenges: Autism/Autism spectrum disorder (ASD)/ADHD/AD

Good nutrition dense diet is highly important for a healthy body. Children on the spectrum have some challenges adapting to new diets. This becomes a challenge for parents and they drop out from the wellness journey for their child. But, dropping out is not an option for the parents whose children on the spectrum.

Here are some basic strategies that a parent can adopt to improve their child's eating problem.

  1. Positive reinforcement. Praise your child when she/he does something appropriate at mealtime, and do your best to ignore his/her wrong behaviors. Keep mealtime positive, pleasant, and enjoyable.

  2. Never force your child to eat. Human body is very smart. When the digestive system is overwhelmed then feeling hungry is suppressed. So, if a child is not hungry, skip the meal and feed them when they ask for food.

  3. Use social modelling. Even if your child refuses to eat, you should have him sit at the dinner table with the rest of the family at mealtime. You and your child’s siblings should model good eating and social behavior and avoid making negative comments and faces at foods.

  4. Stick to a schedule. Your child’s meals and snacks should be at least two hours apart and offered at approximately the same time and at the same place in your home every day. He/she needs to learn that there’s a consistent daily routine for meals and snacks. Turn off the television during meals, and keep the ambient noise level down to avoid auditory overstimulation.

  5. Offer manageable foods. Give your child smaller-than-normal serving sizes to avoid visual overstimulation. Do not serve more than three different foods on his plate at any one time.

  6. Get your child involved. Your child is more likely to eat a food if he’s had some sort of interaction with it prior to mealtime. Make your child a part of menu planning, grocery shopping, food preparation, etc.

  7. Use appropriate mealtime language. Right choice of words is important. Avoid asking your child questions to which he can respond with a “no.” For eg: Avoid “can you?” questions and “don’t” demands. Instead, speak to your child using positive statements, such as “you can” and “do.” Here are some examples: Instead of saying “Arav, can you take a bite of roti for Mummy?” say, “Arav eats roti on his own.” Instead of saying “Arav, please can you drink some soup for Papa?” say, “Arav drinks soup from his bowl.” Instead of saying “Don’t put so many nuts in your mouth at a time! You’re going to choke!” say, “Arav chews one nut at a time.”

  8. Avoid food burnout. If your child eats the same food, the same way, every day, he’ll eventually be bored and feel “burn out” and eliminate the food from his diet. It is difficult to have a child on the spectrum with a feeding problem accept that preferred food if he eliminates it now. If your child continues to burn out on his preferred foods, he’ll soon be left with very few foods in his diet.

To avoid burnout, offer a particular food no more than every other day; and if your child has very limited food choices, and you have no choice but to offer a particular food daily, change one thing about the color, shape, texture, or taste of the food. If you are using millets for eg, one day boil it like rice and give, next day add a flavor to it, 3rd day make pancakes out of it and so on.

These basic strategies will help you get started improving your child’s eating behavior and help him/her stay nourished.

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  1. Kuschner, E. S., Eisenberg, I. W., Orionzi, B., Simmons, W. K., Kenworthy, L., Martin, A., & Wallace, G. L. (2015). A Preliminary Study of Self-Reported Food Selectivity in Adolescents and Young Adults with Autism Spectrum Disorder. Research in autism spectrum disorders, 15-16, 53–59.

  2. Williams, P. G., Dalrymple, N., & Neal, J. (2000). Eating habits of children with autism. Pediatric nursing, 26(3), 259–264.

  3. Martins, Y., Young, R. L., & Robson, D. C. (2008). Feeding and Eating Behaviors in Children with Autism and Typically Developing Children. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 38(10), 1878–1887.

  4. Boutelle, K. N., Birnbaum, A. S., Lytle, L. A., Murray, D. M., & Story, M. (2003). Associations between perceived family meal environment and parent intake of fruit, vegetables, and fat. Journal of nutrition education and behavior, 35(1), 24–29.

  5. Wolstenholme, H., Kelly, C., Hennessy, M., & Heary, C. (2020). Childhood fussy/picky eating behaviours: a systematic review and synthesis of qualitative studies. International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity, 17(1).

  6. Strickland, E. (2009). Eating for Autism: The 10-Step Nutrition Plan to Help Treat Your Child’s Autism, Asperger’s, or ADHD (1st ed.). Da Capo Lifelong Books.

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