Many children with ASD develop “picky” eating habits which can be a challenge at home. Eating issues can create challenges at school as well.
Consider the student who will only eat peanut butter and crackers but attends school in a “peanut-free” classroom due to another student with a life-threatening allergy to peanuts.
Or, the student who eats only “junk” food in a school that has adopted a school wide policy for healthy eating.
Or the student who eats so slowly that he either goes hungry or misses important social and exercise opportunities at recess and lunch.
If your child or a student in your classroom has difficulty with some aspect of eating at school, consider the following tips:
- Deal with the issue as a team. Often there are very specific reasons why a student with ASD has developed picky eating habits including strong sensory sensitivities to the tastes, temperature or textures of certain foods. Families may have already tried a number of strategies to expand their child’s food repertoire. Before developing a plan, it is important to understand the history of the problem and to come to agreement as to how to approach the problem.
- If it has not already been done, seek assessments by medical and dental professionals to ensure there is not an underlying health problem that may be related to the eating issue (cavities, swallowing difficulties, food allergies).
- If you decide to embark on a plan to improve healthy eating habits, don’t bite off more than you can chew (pun intended!).
The following guidelines may help:
- Introduce one new food at a time… start with something that has a similar taste or texture to something the student already likes.
- Introduce the new food slowly, start by having someone else eat the food in the student’s vicinity while telling the student how yummy it is.
- From here, reinforce the student for allowing the new food to be on his plate and for touching it and tasting it before you get him to actually eat it. This may need to be done over several days.
- Encourage the student by motivating him… it’s okay to use rewards!
- Once the student is tolerating the new food, continue to provide it on a regular basis… at least every couple of days.
- Repeat the process with each new food.
If all else fails, there are lots of ways to “hide” nutritious foods in other items: finely chopped carrots are invisible in spaghetti sauce, muffins can incorporate a multitude of vegetables, and fruits can be delivered as smoothies.