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How to improve your neurodiverse child's food tolerance

It is normal for parents of neurodiverse children to be concerned about their child's diet, health, food tolerance and required nutrient intake.

After all, it's common for children with ASD and developmental delays to be selective eaters.

An array of vegetables

Before we jump into things, it is important to highlight that if you are concerned about your child's consumption of food, you must seek professional advice from a doctor, dietician or other relevant medical professional. Malnutrition and food refusal is a serious issue and should be addressed by a qualified and experienced professional.

The following blog only provides general strategy suggestions for children with minor food selectivity challenges. Major feeding issues require specialized assessment and treatments protocols (of which Emu Ed can provide if required). Please seek further professional recommendations if you don't think your child is consuming a sufficient variety of foods or is not consuming sufficient calories and nutrients.

Children with autism and other developmental delays are often highly sensitive to stimuli in their environment and this can translate to them eating a very restricted variety of foods.

Wide variety of food presented on different size wooden spoons and bowls

A lot of parents are struggling to integrate new foods into their child's diet and many of them resort to cooking multiple meals every evening for the whole family. It feels easier to cook another meal than deal with the arguments, tantrums and possible refusal of food all together.

Some parents even say: "At least they are eating something". That something might provide them with energy, but long-term will create a lack of nutrients and not support their child's growth.

To increase the variety of food your child eats, there isn’t a cookie-cutter solution, but there are many things you can try!

Here are some strategies to increase food tolerance for neurodiverse (ASD, ADHD, ODD etc.) children :

Yellow fruits and vegetables

First, identify your child’s food preferences. What are their favorite food? What color are they? What do they smell? What’s their texture?

Second, you can slowly introduce items that are similar in taste, color, texture and smell. That way, your child tolerance to food is increasing bit-by-bit without forcing anything.

Third, use the hierarchy of food: when introducing a new food item, get your child to do the following in order:

- Touch it

- Smell it

- Kiss or lick the food

- Take only one small bite

Along the way, reinforce their actions and praise them often. It is a long game and small steps must be rewarded.

Model tasting foods yourself, identifying the flavor, taste (e.g. salty, sweet, sour etc.) You can set up 'tasting sessions' that are outside of meal times to practice tasking new foods. Place approximately 4-5 small pieces of food (2cm x 2cm) on a plate. Have some items that you know your child likes. They can choose what they want to do with the food (touch, smell, lick, chew). During these tasting sessions allow your child to leave the table if it is becoming too overwhelming. They can come back when they are regulated and ready to practice. Tasting sessions should happen 1-3 times per day.

REMEMBER... we don't want children to become highly stressed and anxious at meal times becuase this can be more detrimental to their relationship with food. Create a relaxed and fun environment. this might involve playing their favorite song during the tasking session, you using a super hero toy to deliver the food to the table etc.

As your child starts tolerating a few bites of a new food, increase the number of bites they need to take before getting the reinforcer. Eventually, the reinforcer will phased out and your child will eat the one meal you cooked for dinner.

Two children baking together

Food tolerance is difficult to increase and it takes time. It is possible to get your child to eat a bigger variety of food so they get all the nutrients they need to be healthy. Be patient. Practice often. Celebrate small wins.

This is very individual-based topic. If you need specific advices book a complimentary Discovery Call so we can guide you in your journey towards cooking only one meal at dinner time for the whole family!

Bon appétit!


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