Nutrition: Tips and Tricks to Creating a Healthy Diet for Children on the Autism Spectrum

red strawberries on persons feet

Restricted diets, sensitivities to foods, behavioral tendencies, and gastrointestinal problems are all examples of some nutritional challenges individuals with autism can be affected by. Having a nutritious diet plays a huge role in living a healthy lifestyle.

According to, a full 56% of people on the autism spectrum take vitamins to make up for the lack in eating a nutritious diet. However, merely taking oral vitamins cannot make up for the decrease in certain vitamins that are lacking from a healthy diet.

It’s hard to have a healthy diet! Even the most typical of children don’t eat as well as they should. Having a child with autism who is an extremely picky eater or on a super restricted diet can only make this already challenging task more difficult. You are probably asking yourself how can I help my child eat better? First, it is important to understand why your child may not be eating as well as you’d like. (Below is information from “Parents Guide to Feeding Behavior in Children with Autism”

  • Is there a medical condition affected your child’s feeding?
    • Is your child reacting to getting a stomachache? Sometimes your child may not be eating because they have linked food to getting a tummy ache and are rejecting food to avoid stomach problems. Common issues can include constipation or acid reflux.
    • Does your child have food allergies? Is there a food your child eats that cause a rash or GI upset each time they eat it? Always contact your child’s PCP if you are questioning a food allergy.
    • This is less common, but it is always good to rule out any swallowing or tooth concerns.
  • Are there any behavioral or developmental concerns affecting my child’s eating?
    • Is your child able to process all the sensory aspects to feeding? Eating requires all 5 senses (taste, smell, touch, sight, and sound). Many times, individuals with autism have difficulties with sensory processing, which can impact tolerating certain foods.
    • Are behavioral difficulties or learned behaviors getting in the way of eating? For example, if your child has learned that being upset and angry over the food in front of them means it gets taken away, they may use this to get only their most valued foods served to them.
    • Is your child having a hard time understanding and using language? If your child is not able to understand what is being said or unable to pay attention, they may not know what is expected of them when food is being given to them.

Always consult your child’s physician with any questions or concerns about your child’s nutrition or any concerns before undertaking any new dietary plan. Your child’s doctor will also be able to direct you to other services or specialists if needed.

What can you do at home?

  • Use a feeding routine or schedule: Have your child eat at the same time and place for each meal if you can. Setting this routine can help your child have an expectation for what should happen during a meal.
  • Avoid all day grazing: Having snacks and food out all day for your child to eat as they please can decrease appetites for a mealtime.
  • Have comfortable and supportive seating:Make sure your child is in a position where they are upright and not swaying or leaning or have dangling feet. Having good postural support while eating allows your child to feel “grounded” and safe and can also create decreased behavioral distractions.
  • Limit mealtimes:Most eating (even for picky eaters) occurs in the first 30 minutes. Limit mealtimes and snacks to 15-30 minutes.
  • Get your child involved:Let them help you create part of the meal if possible. Having them involved allows them to explore and play with food, while not actually requiring them to eat it.
  • Practice good eating behaviors as a family: Children learn by watching. During mealtimes make sure you as the parent and other siblings are modeling good eating behaviors.
  • Reward positive behaviors:Offer praise and rewards when a child approaches/ eats a new food.
  • Ignore negative behaviors:When possible, ignore when your child spits out, throws, or refuses a food.
  • Rule of 3:Always offer foods your child already enjoys, as well as some they do not or have not tried. Try offering only 3 foods at a time with 1-2 being ones they already like and the other be a new or not yet liked food. If the new food is not tolerated, try putting it on a separate plate near your child with no expectations.
  • Presentation: Present new foods in smaller bites or in fun ways to make it more likely that they will try it.

It can take many tries to get a child to eat new or not yet tolerated foods. In conjunction with your child’s primary care physician’s dietary recommendations, we can assist you and your child with a variety of daily living and behavior intervention strategies. Contact us today to discuss how we can help you and your family!