Reducing Mealtime Challenges: ABA Approaches for Picky Eaters

parenting with aba Jun 18, 2024
The Behavior Place Picky Eaters

Today we’re going to be talking about picky eating in children with autism! Before we get started we do want to give a disclaimer that if you are dealing with severely picking eating, such as your child will only eat a handful of different foods, is losing weight, or has serious challenging behaviors surrounding eating, this is not the post for you. We strongly encourage you to seek help from someone with advanced training in highly selective eating. With that being said, there are strategies that you can use to improve mild picky eating that, when done correctly, can often improve children’s willingness to experience new foods. Okay, so with that being said, let’s get started!

Picky eating can be a common challenge for children with autism, impacting their nutrition and overall well-being. Today, we'll explore practical ABA strategies for addressing picky eating in children with autism.

Setting Realistic Expectations:

One of the foundational principles in addressing picky eating behaviors is setting realistic expectations that align with your child's abilities and needs. Recognizing that progress may occur gradually and vary from one child to another is essential for parents embarking on this journey. Every child with autism is unique, with their own set of sensory preferences, aversions, and challenges related to food. It’s important to remember that there is no one-size-fits all approach, and each strategy here can be modified depending on the needs of your particular child.

Strategy 1: Modeling

Demonstrate positive eating behaviors yourself or have peers demonstrate these behaviors to your child. Modeling can help increase acceptance of new foods and behaviors through observational learning. For younger children, simply eating the food in front of them often increases their exposure to it, and can lead to them being more likely to try it in the future. For older children or children with more language, you can model eating these foods while also providing statements such as “I love (food)” “Yummy!” “Mmmm, this is so good”. If your child makes comments about the food being yucky, avoid engaging or trying to coerce or convince the child to eat it. This can often lead to more refusal in the long run. Instead, keep the experience positive by continuing to model eating the food while sharing about it, “Yumm, this watermelon is so juicy!” or “This soup feels so nice and warm.” To recap, repeatedly modeling eating certain foods can increase your child’s exposure and acceptance of the food over time. 

Strategy 2: Systematic Desensitization 

Gradually expose your child to new foods or textures in a structured way. Let’s imagine a pyramid. At the top of the pyramid is your child successfully trying a new food, meaning they put it in their mouth, chew it, and swallow it WITHOUT distress or resistance. On the bottom of the pyramid are alllll the tiny steps that we can work on that lead up to the top of the pyramid. For many children, it is overwhelming and stressful to be expected to consume a new food right off the bat. We can work on things like simply touching the food with their fingers, smelling the food, giving the food a kiss, putting it in their mouth and spitting it back out, chewing the food, all before we expect them to eat it. You can do this through modeling and providing reinforcement for each small step along the way. For example, let’s say you are hoping to teach your child to eat a chicken strip. If they resist the chicken strip being on their plate, work on having it next to their plate for a few meals until they are comfortable with that. Praise them or provide other reinforcement for allowing the chicken strip to be on the table. Then, you can move on to having it on their own plate, working on this step until they are completely comfortable with that. You can then model and gently encourage your child to touch the chicken strip, such as saying “Hmmm, I wonder how this feels! Is it bumpy, soft, or hard?” Once your child is comfortable with this, you can work on smelling or kissing the chicken strip, using phrases like “I wonder what it smells like? Or being silly and saying, the chicken needs a kiss!” With a child who does not respond to vocal prompts such as these, you can continue to model these behaviors and provide reinforcement if they choose to join you or try it. The important thing to remember is that while these situations may be new for your child and they might show mild resistance or hesitation, your child should not be in excessive amounts of stress. Research has shown that children who are forced to eat certain foods in “feeding programs,” report actually avoiding these foods later on in life. To recap, eating the new food is at the top of the pyramid, and there are always ways you can encourage your child to explore or interact with the new food in other, less stressful ways first.

Another way you can do this is by exposing your child to the new food outside of mealtimes. Maybe this is by having your child help you put the chicken strips on a baking sheet to cook, or to touch them to feel how cold they are while they’re still frozen. You could even make sensory bins using various foods, such as an apple sauce sensory bin, but, it also doesn’t have to be that complicated. Any small way that you can work on exposing your child to new foods can increase acceptance of these foods in the future.

Strategy 3: Consistency and Visuals 

Establish consistent mealtime routines with predictable schedules and environment. Some of the ways you can do this are to use a picture schedule, which provides a visual sequence of steps involved in mealtime activities. This could include things like washing hands, sitting at the table, and cleaning up afterward. By following a picture schedule, your child can anticipate what will happen next, reducing overall anxiety during mealtimes. Overall, it is important to create a mealtime routine that works for you and your family. 

Strategy 4: Shaping

Shaping involves taking a food that your child already eats, and slowly changing it or offering slightly different variations. This gradual approach allows your child to acclimate to new tastes, textures, and colors at their own pace. For example, maybe your child loves to eat oatmeal, and you would love for them to eat more fresh fruits. You can begin by placing a tiny bit of strawberry jam into the oatmeal each day, then slowly adding in teeny tiny bits of real strawberries into the oatmeal, then progressively larger pieces, removing the jam, adding whole strawberries to the oatmeal, and eventually serving whole strawberries without the oatmeal all together. These changes may take a lot of time, but the time will pass either way. Overall, shaping can be a wonderful tool in expanding your child's food repertoire. 

Extra tip: Stay positive!

While picky eating can undoubtedly be a source of stress for parents, it's crucial not to succumb to defeatism or negative mindsets. Thoughts like 'He would never eat that' not only limit the child's exposure to new foods but also perpetuate a cycle of restrictive eating habits. Just as significant achievements require time and effort, expanding a child's food preferences is a gradual process that necessitates patience and perseverance. It's understandable that setbacks may occur along the way, and not every attempt to introduce new foods will yield immediate success. However, it's vital not to lose sight of the progress made, no matter how small. Each time you endeavor to expose your child to a new food, you're taking a positive step forward in promoting their nutritional health and broadening their palate.

Even if the outcome isn't what you anticipated, it's essential to acknowledge and celebrate your efforts. Giving yourself a pat on the back for your dedication and resilience can provide the motivation needed to continue your journey towards fostering healthier eating habits for your child.

Ultimately, by maintaining a positive attitude, being patient, and consistently exposing your child to new foods, you're laying the foundation for long-term success. Your commitment to supporting your child's dietary diversity is commendable, and every small step forward is a testament to your dedication as a parent.

By implementing these ABA strategies tailored to address picky eating in children with autism, parents can support their child's nutritional health and mealtime enjoyment. Remember to approach the process with patience, flexibility, and a focus on your child's individual needs and preferences. With consistent support and guidance, children with autism can expand their food choices and develop positive mealtime behaviors over time.


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