Do you have troubles getting your child to eat meals, let alone healthy meals? Many children with autism have difficulties with eating, either because of texture sensitivities, taste aversions, food allergies causing their diets to be very limited, or even just a lack of interest because they would rather be playing or doing something else. Whatever the reason, it makes it stressful and difficult for parents to plan for and provide well balanced meals. However, there are many strategies that are available to help parents through these tough times!
First, create an appropriate environment, structure eating times for the whole family so your child with autism begins to experience a routine, with everyone involved. Designate a specific table where snacks and meals will be eaten. If challenging behaviors are typically high during eating times, designate one parent to focus on your child with autism so the other parent can focus on the other siblings, if applicable. This will also allow the adults and other siblings to be role models for the child with autism. It is also important to remove distractions from the environment. For example, have the tv and tablets turned off for at least 30 minutes prior to eating whenever possible.
Second, if your child does not normally sit for meal times but rather “grazes” snacking here and there, start with a very short requirement. For example, allow your child to leave the table if he sits for three minutes, or eats a particular number of bites (see below). Increase the expectation for the time at the table as your child is successful. Using ‘first – then’ can be very powerful. First, eat 3 bites then you can go play!
Third, set clear rules. Visual charts help really well to show children with autism when they can get what they want. So, if they are playing with the iPad when it’s dinner time, take the iPad, ask them if they want the iPad, if they say “yes” then tell them “first sit for one, two, three minutes (pointing at drawn boxes on a piece of paper) and then you can have the iPad!”. Or, “first eat one, two, three, four, five bites (pointing at drawn boxes on a piece of paper) and then you can have the iPad!” Give a happy face, a sticker, or some other drawn symbol in each box when your child finishes a bite or a minute goes by.
Lastly, make eating fun! Incorporate your child’s favorite character into eating (e.g., make pancakes in the shape of Mickey Mouse). Allow your child to choose which plate she wants; even take her to the store and let her pick out which set of dishes she wants. If your child likes music, play a small bit of music on the radio after she takes a bite. Always maintain a positive tone, be calm, follow thru with the expectations that you have set and of course be creative, have fun, and don’t forget to smile and have fun yourself!