Meal times and feeding can be a hurdle in the life of a family with a child who has autism. There can be difficulties with eating due to different textures, smells, sounds, food allergies, aversions, or a lack of interest. However, there are many strategies to help children with autism overcome the hurdle and have an enjoyable meal experience.
Autism and Food Sensitivity
Children with autism have an increased likelihood of possessing food sensitivities. Both food allergies and food intolerances are common in children with autism. These children are twice as likely to have some type of food sensitivity. These food sensitivities are common due to immune issues as well as differences in their digestive tracts, especially in regard to carbohydrates.
Children with autism can have food allergies. These are similar to the rest of their peers in that food causes a reaction within the body and can be life-threatening.
Food sensitivities can cause
- gastrointestinal pain,
- gut issues, or
However, not all children with autism can vocalize this discomfort and it may lead to behavioral outbursts. They may become more upset or stressed during meal times, have meltdowns, or attempt to avoid food altogether.
Additionally, children with autism may experience food intolerances. This is not the same as allergies as there is no life-threatening aspect. However, it can still cause the same or similar behavior outburst. Two common food intolerances in children with autism are gluten and casein (a dairy protein).
Food intolerances can cause
- stomach pain,
- diarrhea or
It can be helpful to take a child with autism to an allergy specialist and one that specializes in working with autism. They will be able to determine any food allergies or food intolerances to avoid during meal times. This can make the whole process go smoothly and rule out one possibility of a child avoiding food.
What to do if your child with autism won’t eat?
The first step in determining a plan towards diet expansion for your child with autism who won’t eat is to see which problem category they fall into.
Feeding problems or “picky eating”– Some children with autism only eat less than 20 foods and do not include all the food groups. Once they eliminate a food or a group, they will not eat from it again. Determining if your child falls into this category as early as possible is necessary to help them get feeding intervention from a feeding specialist or occupational therapist.
Medical – Sometimes eating can cause a child with autism discomfort or pain. Some possible issues can be reflux, constipation, GI issues, or respiratory involvement. Finding a pediatrician that specializes in working with children with autism is vital in order to get the issues resolved or managed.
Oral motor – Eating involves the coordination of the lips, tongue, jaw, and facial muscles before swallowing. Oftentimes, this process is learned young. However, children with autism can have a breakdown in this learning process due to structural abnormalities. Getting help from a speech-language pathologist can help in strengthening and using these muscles to aid in eating.
How do you teach a child with autism to feed themselves?
Before a child with autism can feed themselves, it is important to establish a routine with the child so they become more comfortable. Try to eat at the same place and same time every day that way it establishes a sense of routine for the child. They know when the family sits down at the table, it is their indicator that eating a meal will be involved as well as the expectations during that time.
- Begin with the basics. Start off with the child eating foods they already know and love to help them ease into the situation
- Remove stressors or other sensory aversions before starting meal time. Sometimes smells or unusual sounds can be deterrents to a child with autism at meal time.
- Support a child’s posture while eating. Oftentimes children with autism have poor trunk and core stability so they may lean or wiggle in their seats. Putting cushions, towels, or a stool can help children sit more comfortably at the table or eating space.
- Get foods out of the packaging. Sometimes children only think they like a specific brand of food. Taking food out of packages eliminates the questioning if it came from a certain brand. Putting food into clear containers as soon as they are brought home and helping to introduce new brands of similar foods.
- Avoid focusing on food and your child’s behavior. If during meal time, the family is talking and eating there is less pressure on the child to eat and they can go at their own pace without worrying about being watched or eating quickly.
Leafwing Center can work with you to design a plan for autism feeding issues that you may be facing with your child. Our ABA therapists are trained in creating personalized plans that match your child’s ability levels. ABA therapists are trained to address the behavior. If you are concerned about the health and wellness of your child then you need to contact your physician.
Frequently asked questions about ABA therapy
What is ABA Therapy used for?
ABA-based therapy can be used in a multitude of areas. Currently, these interventions are used primarily with individuals living with ASD; however, their applications can be used with individuals living with pervasive developmental disorders as well as other disorders. For ASD, it can be used in effectively teaching specific skills that may not be in a child’s repertoire of skills to help him/her function better in their environment whether that be at home, school, or out in the community. In conjunction with skill acquisition programs, ABA-based interventions can also be used in addressing behavioral excesses (e.g., tantrum behaviors, aggressive behaviors, self-injurious behaviors). Lastly, it can also be utilized in parent/caregiver training.
In skill acquisition programs, a child’s repertoire of skills is assessed in the beginning phase of the services in key adaptive areas such as communication/language, self-help, social skills, and motor skills as well. Once skills to be taught are identified, a goal for each skill is developed and then addressed/taught by using ABA-based techniques to teach those important skills. Ultimately, an ABA-based therapy will facilitate a degree of maintenance (i.e., the child can still perform the learned behaviors in the absence of training/intervention over time) and generalization (i.e., the learned behaviors are observed to occur in situations different from the instructional setting). These two concepts are very important in any ABA-based intervention.
In behavior management, the challenging behaviors are assessed for their function in the beginning phase of the services. In this phase, the “why does this behavior happen in the first place?” is determined. Once known, an ABA-based therapy will be developed to not just decrease the occurrence of the behavior being addressed, but also teach the child a functionally-equivalent behavior that is socially-appropriate. For example, if a child resorts to tantrum behaviors when she is told she cannot have a specific item, she may be taught to accept an alternative or find an alternative for herself. Of course, we can only do this up to a certain point—the offering of alternatives. There comes a point when a ‘no’ means ‘no’ so the tantrum behavior will be left to run its course (i.e., to continue until it ceases). This is never easy and will take some time for parents/caregivers to get used to, but research has shown that over time and consistent application of an ABA-based behavior management program, the challenging behavior will get better.
In parent training, individuals that provide care for a child may receive customized “curriculum” that best fit their situation. A typical area covered in parent training is teaching responsible adults pertinent ABA-based concepts to help adults understand the rationale behind interventions that are being used in their child’s ABA-based services. Another area covered in parent training is teaching adults specific skill acquisition programs and/or behavior management programs that they will implement during family time. Other areas covered in parent training may be data collection, how to facilitate maintenance, how to facilitate generalization of learned skills to name a few.
There is no “one format” that will fit all children and their families’ needs. The ABA professionals you’re currently working with, with your participation, will develop an ABA-based treatment package that will best fit your child’s and your family’s needs. For more information regarding this topic, we encourage you to speak with your BCBA or reach out to us at [email protected].
Who Can Benefit From ABA Therapy?
There is a common misconception that the principles of ABA are specific to Autism. This is not the case. The principles and methods of ABA are scientifically backed and can be applied to any individual. With that said, the U.S. Surgeon General and the American Psychological Association consider ABA to be an evidence based practice. Forty years of extensive literature have documented ABA therapy as an effective and successful practice to reduce problem behavior and increase skills for individuals with intellectual disabilities and Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD). Children, teenagers, and adults with ASD can benefit from ABA therapy. Especially when started early, ABA therapy can benefit individuals by targeting challenging behaviors, attention skills, play skills, communication, motor, social, and other skills. Individuals with other developmental challenges such as ADHD or intellectual disability can benefit from ABA therapy as well. While early intervention has been demonstrated to lead to more significant treatment outcomes, there is no specific age at which ABA therapy ceases to be helpful.
Additionally, parents and caregivers of individuals living with ASD can also benefit from the principles of ABA. Depending on the needs of your loved one, the use of specified ABA techniques in addition to 1:1 services, may help produce more desirable treatment outcomes. The term “caregiver training” is common in ABA services and refers to the individualized instruction that a BCBA or ABA Supervisor provides to parents and caregivers. This typically involves a combination of individualized ABA techniques and methods parents and caregivers can use outside of 1:1 sessions to facilitate ongoing progress in specified areas.
ABA therapy can help people living with ASD, intellectual disability, and other developmental challenges achieve their goals and live higher quality lives.
What does ABA Therapy look like?
Agencies that provide ABA-based services in the home-setting are more likely to implement ABA services similarly than doing the same exact protocols or procedures. Regardless, an ABA agency under the guidance of a Board-Certified Behavior Analyst follows the same research-based theories to guide treatment that all other acceptable ABA agencies use.
ABA-based services start with a functional behavior assessment (FBA). In a nutshell, a FBA assesses why the behaviors may be happening in the first place. From there, the FBA will also determine the best way to address the difficulties using tactics that have been proven effective over time with a focus on behavioral replacement versus simple elimination of a problem behavior. The FBA will also have recommendations for other relevant skills/behaviors to be taught and parent skills that can be taught in a parent training format to name a few. From there, the intensity of the ABA-based services is determined, again, based on the clinical needs of your child. The completed FBA is then submitted to the funding source for approval.
One-on-one sessions between a behavior technician and your child will start once services are approved. The duration per session and the frequency of these sessions per week/month will all depend on how many hours your child’s ABA services have been approved for—usually, this will be the number recommended in the FBA. The sessions are used to teach identified skills/behaviors via effective teaching procedures. Another aspect of ABA-based services in the home-setting is parent training. Parent training can take many forms depending on what goals have been established during the FBA process. The number of hours dedicated for parent training is also variable and solely depends on the clinical need for it. If a 1:1 session is between a behavior technician and your child, a parent training session or appointment is between you and the case supervisor and with and without your child present, depending on the parent goal(s) identified. Parent training service’s goal is for you to be able to have ample skills/knowledge in order for you to become more effective in addressing behavioral difficulties as they occur outside of scheduled ABA sessions. Depending on the goals established, you may be required to participate in your child’s 1:1 sessions. These participations are a good way for you to practice what you have learned from the case supervisor while at the same time, having the behavior technician available to you to give you feedback as you practice on those new skills.
As mentioned in the beginning, no two ABA agencies will do the same exact thing when it comes to providing ABA services; however, good agencies will always base their practice on the same empirically-proven procedures.
How do I start ABA Therapy?
In most cases, the first item required to start ABA therapy is the individual’s autism spectrum disorder (ASD) diagnosis report. This is typically conducted by a doctor such as a psychiatrist, psychologist, or a developmental pediatrician. Most ABA therapy agencies and insurance companies will ask for a copy of this diagnosis report during the intake process as it is required to request an ABA assessment authorization from the individual’s medical insurance provider.
The second item required to start ABA therapy is a funding source. In the United States, and in cases where Medi-Cal or Medicare insurances are involved, there is a legal requirement for ABA services to be covered when there is a medical necessity (ASD diagnosis). Medi-Cal and Medicare cover all medically necessary behavioral health treatment services for beneficiaries. This typically includes children diagnosed with ASD. Since Applied Behavior Analysis is an evidence based and effective treatment for individuals with ASD, it is considered a covered treatment when medically necessary. In many cases, private insurance will also cover ABA services when medically necessary, however in these cases, it is best to speak directly with your medical insurance provider to determine the specifics of the coverage and to ensure that ABA is in fact, a covered benefit. Additionally, some families opt to pay for ABA services out-of-pocket.
The next step to starting ABA therapy is to contact an ABA provider whom you are interested in working with. Depending on your geographic location, ABA agencies exist in many cities across the United States. Your insurance carrier, local support groups, and even a thorough online search can help you find reputable and properly credentialed ABA agencies near you. Our organization, LeafWing Center, is based in southern California and is recognized for aiding people with ASD achieve their goals with the research based on applied behavior analysis.
Once you have identified the ABA provider with whom you wish to work, they should help you facilitate the next steps. These will include facilitating paperwork and authorizations with your funding source. Once the assessment process begins, a BCBA (Board Certified Behavior Analyst) or qualified Program Supervisor should get in contact with you to arrange times in which interviews with parents/caregivers and observations of your loved one can be conducted. This will help in the process of gathering important clinical information so that with your collaboration, the most effective treatment plans and goals can be established for your loved one. This process is referred to as the Functional Behavior Assessment (FBA) and is elaborated on in different blog posts on our website. With regard as to what can be expected once ABA therapy begins, please read our blog post titled: When You Start an ABA program, What Should You Reasonably Expect from Your Service Provider?