Autism, Food Choices and Behavior

I frequently see the phrase “my child only eats” in the media followed by a list of processed foods such as packaged macaroni and cheese, chicken nuggets and french fries. Why is that? One key reason is familiarity; but, another reason is often the addictive quality of processed foods. Though it is far easier to stick to the “favorite foods,” a variety of food choices is not only key to proper nutrition but has positive effects on behavior as well.

It’s a myth that an autistic person will only eat a few foods. However, it is a pattern that we on the autism spectrum frequently fall into–if we do not WORK to maintain a healthy diet of a variety of foods. Therefore, parents of autistic children will have to labor to get their child(ren) to eat more than a few foods. Our “variety” of food choices likely will be more limited than the variety of diet that a neurotypical person eats, that is true, but a healthy diet, with probable additional vitamin and mineral supplements needed, CAN and should be done.

When one has processed foods in the diet, the body will crave them versus natural foods. Processed foods are terrible for the GI systems of everyone, but particularly for those on the autism spectrum who may have genetic-related problems with absorbing certain types of food or nutrients–much less artificial colors and preservatives. The result is not just poor nutrition, BUT likely poor behavior. In particular, if you notice any abdominal bloating in your child, your child has significant GI issues including food allergies or at least food intolerances. How do you act when you have a horrible stomach ache?

However, there may NOT be any visible signs of GI problems. My autistic daughter has a mast cell disorder which causes large histamine releases–her stomach does not always visibly bloat up; but, she does have mood changes. The GI tract and the brain have very connected nervous system communication. My daughter’s anxiety goes through the roof from changes in brain chemicals caused by adverse changes in her gut. Increased anxiety means potentially more meltdowns, at minimum. Anxiety and/or aggression are not the only possible mood changes, however, an autistic child may have. Does your child seem hyperactive or chatty after candy, drinks or food with artificial dyes or preservatives in it?  It’s not your imagination, there’s a connection. I could always tell when my child had dyes or sugary junk food after being at a friend’s house–as she would be unusually chatty and “happy” in a hyperactive way when she got home.  Bottom line:  Gut health in someone on the autism spectrum is critical for proper nutritional health and behavior.

Testing for nutritional deficiencies, allergies  etc.

Take your child to an Allergist physician and have food allergies tested for.  Additionally, find a primary care practitioner who practices functional/integrative medicine so he/she is willing to check Vitamin D levels, problems with “B” vitamin adsorptions, need for more Vitamin C for immunity (and even more is needed–if your child has Ehlers-Danlos, which is a collagen disorder), iron deficiency, trace mineral deficiencies, or heavy metal toxicity. Get all of those issues corrected or at least dealt with.

How to expand your child’s diet

Yes, processed food is a huge time saver and often times cheaper than real food. Get rid of it. If you have to eliminate one food at a time–while introducing one natural food at a time–then at least do that until you eliminate all of the processed foods.  Get rid of all candy, foods and drinks which contain artificial colors/dyes. No artificial preservatives. Eliminate anything that has aluminum such as sodium aluminum phosphate. No high fructose corn syrup. Get rid of anything with partially hydrogenated oils. Olive oil and coconut oil are okay. Very few people have celiac disease but many are getting an intolerance to wheat. Eliminating gluten has significantly improved the behavior in some autistic children. Restricting dairy may have beneficial effects as well, but be sure to substitute something like almond milk in order to maintain healthy bones and teeth in the growing child.

Try different ways of presenting healthy food. Maybe your child hates the texture of cooked carrots but likes the crispness of raw carrots–or vice versa.  We on the autism spectrum like order, but it is not always logical how we came up with the particular order we like. Present the food as whole versus in pieces.  Present it plain vs. ketchup, jam or some type of sauce on it.  Make sure the food is not touching or runs into other foods on the plate. Minimize the number of foods in front of your child at the same time.

Sensory issues and food

Sensory issues affect not only food choice but digestion. Smell seems to be a non-negotiable factor.  If your child hates the smell of the particular food, don’t fight it; take away the food.  Specifically for autistic people, texture is critical also, but sometimes texture can be adjusted to over time. Smell doesn’t seem to work that way. There may be other sensory issues affecting mealtime as well. Try putting a new food on the plate and encourage your child to touch it with his fingers. (For awhile, my daughter would only eat salad with her fingers. If I said she had to use a fork, she wouldn’t eat the salad). If that’s successful, encourage the child to take it in his/her mouth and move it around. It is NOT required to swallow it. If your child won’t touch or move it around in the mouth, just keep putting the food on the plate every day for several days (go up to 2 weeks if necessary). Eventually, the child may decide to eat the food. Additionally, there are certain behaviors done at mealtime that can increase or decrease how much the autistic child eats.

Conclusion

People on the autism spectrum tend to make a few food choices favorites. Though it takes work, persistence in introducing a variety of healthy foods into the diet is imperative for not only proper nutritional status but is likely to improve undesirable autistic behaviors as well such as reduced meltdowns.