Picky Eating and Autism: Kids with autism are notoriously picky eaters, and many will even limit themselves to just 3 or 4 foods. This makes it feel impossible to even think about changing their diet.
The thought of implementing a special autism diet, like the GFCF diet (gluten free casein free), can feel like an insurmountable task.
Let me assure you. In the beginning, we all thought that in one form or another. Any parent who successfully overcame picky eating and autism, once had the same worries, the same doubts, and the same fears.
In this post:
I will share with you the strategy our family used to succeed on the GFCF diet. I will also share some tips, advice, and ideas that other families have used to overcome picky eating as well as possible underlying medical causes of extreme picky eating.
Overcoming Picky Eating and Autism:
“It’s Too Hard to Start an Autism Diet”
I’m sure you have heard the stories of other parents putting their kids on a special diet for autism. You may have even thought to yourself, “there’s no way I could get my kid on that diet. He only eats pizza, pancakes, and potato chips.”
Not to worry, there are plenty of options and strategies that you can try to help overcome picky eating and autism.
Kids will eventually adjust to a new diet and discover new favorite foods even on a gluten-free, casein-free diet.
Why Even Try a Special Diet
There are tens of thousands of anecdotal stories from parents and practitioners whose children dramatically improved after implementing a special diet.
Incredible stories of:
- gaining eye contact
- improved sleep
- increased attention span
- disappearing eczema
- decreased meltdowns
- an overall happier kid.
Some lucky parents even report hearing their once nonverbal child’s first words just days after starting a GFCF diet.
Backed By Science
If those stories were not enough, there is an ever growing body of research describing the potential effects that things like gluten, dairy, soy and other potentially inflammatory foods can have on our bodies.
You can find more information on that research as well as how to to start this diet in my Complete Guide to the GFCF Diet. You’ll find everything you need to know there(and it’s totally free).
While it can be incredibly hard in the beginning, the potential benefits of following this type of healing diet will be worth it in the long run.
Our Strategy for Overcoming Picky Eating and Autism
This Is What Worked For All of Our Kids
I’m not claiming that our approach is the best way to overcome picky eating and autism, and it’s certainly not the only way to go. However, it did work for our son with autism and both of our other children as well. Therefore, I’m confident this approach can help other parents too.
The strategy we have used can be summed up in these 3 words: “this-then-that”. Essentially, you tell them that once you eat “THIS” then you get to eat “THAT”. You use a HIGHLY preferred food item as a reinforcer or reward for trying the new food.
Eat This = a new food, vegetable, or even a medicine or supplement
Get That = a highly preferred food, drink, or activity
For our son, we actually used a variety of preferred foods. However, organic corn tortilla chips were one of the most effective tools at getting him to try new foods.
Ethan absolutely LOVED chips of all kinds and would try just about anything to get more. You remember the saying: “Bet you can’t eat just one”? With this idea, sometimes we would give him one chip before we started eating, so he would want more. BUT, in order to get more, he first had to try the new food.
The Basic Tips for Success
- Do not start unless you’re willing and able to follow through
- Consistency is the key
- Start with 1-2 new foods per day or per week
- Start with familiar textures and flavors
- Offer a small amount of the new food by itself on the plate
- Only require them to simply taste it in the beginning
- Use their favorite dips, sauces, or other condiments to encourage them to try it
- Immediately follow a bite with the highly preferred food
The Strategy in Action
To help better understand the process, here is an example of one of the first foods we worked to get Ethan to eat.
We started with a hamburger patty. French fries naturally go with a burger, so we used the them as a reinforcer for the trying the patty.
We offered him the burger cut up in bite-sized pieces with ketchup on the side. The plate of fries was on the other side of the table ready for him.
Of course, at first he resisted heavily. But, he wanted the fries, so he eventually would give in and try a bite. Remember, we only offered the burger on the plate. The preferred food, the french fries, was on a seperate plate in sight, but out of reach. This way, he could see what was waiting for him after he tried the new food.
Anytime he would take the smallest of bites, we would celebrate like crazy people and then hand him a couple of fries. The over-celebration probably wasn’t necessary, but that’s what we did back then.
Our approach isn’t perfect, but it worked. There are plenty of “experts” that warn against using a reinforcer to get your kids to try new foods. They may even call it coercion or bribery. Even still, my kids now eat boatloads of veggies, and they even enjoy eating them too.
This strategy also came in handy when teaching our son, Ethan, to take his daily supplements. Eventually, the reinforcer is not needed. Today we implement the this-then-that strategy with ease.
The following is a video I shot for his teachers at school, so they could see how I wanted them to do lunch and snack time.
Here he drinks his green smoothie first then he gets his lunch. Notice, there is no longer resistance from him and very little effort on my part. This is 6 years after starting this strategy, but it shows what is possible after consistent use of our approach.
Overcoming Picky Eating and Autism:
If the new food was a tougher sell, then we only required him to eat a very small amount before he could have his reinforcer. The hamburger was actually a tough sell because he wanted nothing to do with it.
We allowed him to simply take small bites, and we only presented a small amount to him. He was allowed to spit it out and still get the reinforcer, but only the first few times. Once he became more familiar with hamburgers, then we required him to eat more and more of it in order to get the preferred food.
Remember, start with one or two foods at a time. Trying to introduce more may be too overwhelming for everyone.
Typically, we repeated the process until he ate at least half the new food depending on how much he resisted that particular food. If he resisted heavily, then we would only require just a bite and then give him lots of the reinforcing food. On really hard days, one bite was enough to get the entire plate of preferred food.
Add a Clock
Don’t spend all day at the table in a battle of wills. If your child refuses to try the new food after a certain period of time, simply say okay, we’re all done. But, that also means they don’t get that highly preferred food item either. I would say 20-30 minutes at the absolute max is all you should spend.
You may start to worry that your child will starve himself and some kids even purposefully not eat. Most of the time, however, they will eat once they are hungry enough. That’s also another benefit of using the highly desired reinforcer.
We used tortilla chips a lot, and because my son really wanted them he’d eventually try the new food in order to get his chips. If your child is not eating perhaps offer a more enticing reinforcer, maybe even an activity instead of favorite food.
It Can Be Very Tough
If you’re reading through our strategy it may seem like this was an easy transition for our family. However, it was very difficult in the beginning. We started the GFCF Diet and this strategy 8 years ago.
As I’m sure you know, most kids on the autism spectrum have problems with eating and some even have severe aversions to food. Best case, they will refuse to eat unless is what they want.
Worst case, they will throw food across the room, have complete meltdowns at the table, and attack Mom and Dad for not giving them the food they’re used to.
We Overcame the Worst Case Scenario
In our case, we experienced the worst. Broken dishes, scratches, and even bite marks incurred as we attempted to get Ethan to try new foods. There were also times where we had to prevent him from banging his head on the table in the middle of food-related meltdown.
Ethan is on the severe end of the autism spectrum. He did not possess the skills to communicate his feelings, nor did he understand why he was suddenly being asked to try these new foods.
We did our best to help him understand, but our main focus was getting him to try these new foods and be 100% gluten, casein, and soy free.
You Are Not Hurting Them
A lot of parents give up on the autism diet especially when their kids refuse to eat or react the way my son did. It can feel like you are causing them harm and no amount of vegetables will make this better.
Let me reassure you that this diet is not hurting them. In fact, the reactions we encountered was a sign to us that he needed to be off those old foods (more on that later).
It’s important to be patient and respond with a firm kindness during this process. Respond in a way that lets them know you understand their frustrations, but this is how it is going to be now.
Try not to show your own frustrations. They may not fully understand why you’re suddenly not allowing them to have their favorite foods, so respond with compassion keeping that in mind.
We did our best to try and help Ethan understand why we were changing his menu suddenly, but it’s hard to know how much he really comprehended.
Don’t fight battles that are not worth it. I know a lot of parents stress over finding the perfect milk replacement. Most kids do not like many of the milk alternatives, so why fight that. These fake milks have virtually no nutritional value and can be loaded with sugar. They’re just not worth it.
My son hated all the milk alternatives at first too. He loved regular milk, so he would drink the cup of rice or almond milk thinking it was regular milk. However, often times he would immediately spit it out. Thinking we needed to get him to drink some sort of milk, we foolishly kept trying. Eventually, we gave up and he’s really not missing out on anything nutritionally. This was an unnecessary source of stress back then.
Only work on getting the child to eat food that offers a benefit. Carrots, green juices, grass fed beef are all packed with nutrients while things like milk substitutes and gluten free bread are not. If the kid doesn’t like Udi’s or some other GF bread, just do away with bread altogether and focus on more beneficial foods.
All For One
I recommend the entire family adopt the same diet as the ASD child. This advice was given to me and my wife when we started and I wish we did not ignore it. It could have saved everyone a lot of stress. It also helps to model eating these new foods.
Consistency is key. Never attempt to introduce a new food unless you are prepared to follow through. If you’re having a hard day or are feeling tired, don’t try. They will learn that they can wear you down if you are not consistent with your requirements.
Over time, you will find that many of the foods you worked hard to get them to try will become some of their favorite foods. For example, when he was 3-4 years old, my son didn’t like hamburger patties (unless they were from McDonalds) Today, he loves our homemade, grass fed burgers and would eat 3 or 4 of them if we let him.
Overcoming Picky Eating and Autism:
Eventually, we found new GFCF favorites to replace many of his old ones. We then used those to get him to try even more new foods. Later, we used this same strategy to go from GFCF to paleo.
Today, the kid eats more vegetables than most adults, and even asks for seconds and thirds. We still implement this strategy whenever it is needed. He is used to the system now, so it’s usually not even a second thought.
Overcoming Picky Eating and Autism
The “This-Then-That strategy worked well for our family, but it may not be the best approach for your family. Luckily, there are plenty of other methods that can help you overcome picky eating and autism.
Beat Picky Eating and Autism With Food Chains
Food chaining is an approach that takes the foods your child already eats and slowly transitions them to new and/or healthier versions. Essentially, you use the flavors, textures, and temperatures they are eating now, and build from that.
For example, if your child only eats McDonalds chicken nuggets, you begin to transition from McDonalds to a store bought brand then eventually to homemade chicken nuggets.
This method is described further in the book “Food Chaining”. I have not personally read the book nor have I tried this method. Here is the link to the book if you’re interested.
This method is also referred to as Gateway foods. Check out the video below that discusses it more in detail. Also, this website is a good resource for parents trying to overcome picky eating and autism.
They have several videos with tips on how to expand your child’s palate. This information is not geared towards autism and it probably will not work with lower functioning kiddos. However, it may help just to take a look and give you some new ideas.
Using ABA and OT Principles
On the TACA website, there is a detailed example of a strategy that one mom used to overcome picky eating. Working with her son’s ABA and OT therapists, they created a program that helped her son start to eat more nutritious foods after 6 months on the program. Find this article here
Speaking of working with your child’s therapists, it is incredibly important to let everyone know what your child can or cannot eat especially in the beginning. When they continually ask for their old foods, teachers may think the child is starving, and therefore offer him food you do not want them to have.
We’ve had many instances of well meaning teachers and therapist give Ethan all sorts of food that delayed the adoption of the diet. We even had one therapist buy him McDonald’s because he wouldn’t stop asking for fries.
Overcoming Picky Eating and Autism:
Is It Really Picky Eating?
If you’re still having troubles overcoming picky eating and autism, there may be an underlying issue that is driving what only appears to be picky eating. Sometimes, what looks like simple stubbornness can actually have a real medical, sensory, or nutritional reason behind some children’s pickiness.
Medical Issues that Could Lead to Picky Eaters
Some children can refuse to eat certain food because they intuitively know that it will hurt them. This could be due to food sensitivities, acid reflux, GI conditions, or other medical issues.
These kinds of issues could cause the child pain especially after eating. Naturally, they won’t want to eat if they are in pain.
If you think this may be the case for your child, I’d advise you to talk with your doc to rule out any possible causes. Doctors like to dismiss our concerns and attribute them to overzealous parentings, so be persistent.
Certain infections can cause children to be extremely selective or have severe food cravings for particular foods. In the past, my son had to deal with a yeast overgrowth known as Candida.
Candida causes extreme cravings for high carb and sugary foods, so if your child only wants to eat chips, crackers, cookies, pasta and other high carb food like this you may want to investigate Candida as the cause.
Sensory issues are more common in the autism population. It can be so severe that even seeing an offending food will make the child gag or have some type of other negative reaction.
Pay attention to what your child eats and does not. Is there a commonality? Will they not eat soft food, or will they only eat crunchy food? Do they seem to prefer spicy or salty foods?
I see a lot of parents use the sensory excuse as a reason not to adjust their kid’s diet. However even if your child has these kinds of issues, that does not mean you cannot be successful at implementing a GFCF or other healing diet.
If your child has certain nutritional deficits, that can also contribute to picky eating. For example a zinc deficiency can make all foods taste bad or bland. Again, work with your doctor to identify any needs in this area.
“When zinc is deficient, which is a common finding in children with autism, sense of smell is reduced and food tastes boring or unappetizing. Texture can then become an even bigger factor: imagine eating mashed potatoes if you can’t taste the potato flavor – a bland mouthful of mush.” –Julie Matthews. Certified Nutritional Consultant and Special Diet Expert.
Another reason for picky eating is that certain foods can be addicting. For example, if not completely broken down in the gut, the proteins in wheat and milk (gluten and casein) can act on the same receptors in the brain as heroin.
The result is a real addiction to foods containing these ingredients. It sounds crazy, but it is well documented. Check the links at the end of this post for more information.
Certain food additives, like MSG, artificial colors and flavors, can be the reason why some kids will only eat certain brands or have a strong craving for many processed foods.
These additives can excite certain neurons in the brain and make them seem to taste better. This experience can lead to extreme cravings and addiction-like behavior towards these unhealthy foods.
Melting Down in Front of the Fridge
It’s been 8 years since we first put Ethan on an autism diet. However, I can still picture his poor face as he cried sitting at the refrigerator whimpering, “cheese, cheese, cheese, cheese…”
We experienced many of these types of situations some were heartbreaking like this one, while others were really scary. There were times when he would bite or scratch Mom or even start banging his head on the floor because he wanted bread or crackers.
There was even a “Goldfish Incident” at Target that left Mom traumatized for years. She still doesn’t like going to Target with the kids, but that’s a story for another day.
Whether or not this behavior was due to a possible addiction or if it were driven by his Candida infection is unknown. What is known, is that this was not a healthy relationship with food.
Are you thinking of starting the GFCF Diet for your child, click here to learn everything you need to know to get started. (FREE GUIDE)
Learn How to Get Started Today
Overcoming Picky Eating and Autism:
For most of us, overcoming picky eating and autism will not be an easy process.
Remember, the parents who successfully implemented a new diet also sat where you are today. We all had the same reservations and the same worries.
Hopefully, this post has given you hope that it is possible to change your child’s diet and get them eating more nutritious foods. It may be a tough road, but when you start to see improvements in health, speech, communication, temperament, sleep…etc, it will be well worth it.
More Advice on Picky Eating
- Autism Research Institute: The Picky Eater
- How To Handle Picky Eaters
- Nourishing Hope: Picky Eaters
- Nourishing Hope: Picky Eating & Nutritional Deficiencies
Addictive Potential of Gluten and Casein