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Addressing Eating Issues With Children With Autism

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. Many strategies are available though to help parents through these tough times!

First, create structured eating times for the whole family so your child with autism begins to experience a routine, with everyone involved. 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.

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).

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.

Last, 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. Be creative, have fun, and don’t forget to smile and have fun yourself!
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What approach should caregivers take with challenging behaviors?

Managing challenging behaviors can be quite stressful. Most of the time, parents just do what they can to get through the situation with as little fuss and fighting as possible. Unfortunately, this often times involves strategies that may be counterproductive, increasing the chance of these behaviors occurring in the future. If the goal is to decrease these behaviors in the long run, there are specific strategies to use based on why the behavior is occurring. Not all behaviors should be treated the same. Because these strategies that we will discuss below and in future posts may not always be the first strategy a parent would think of, we do recommend consultation with a behavior analyst who can provide a treatment plan and provide support for you and your family along the way.

In general, it is important to plan for a) alternative behaviors to teach your child to engage in instead of the behaviors they currently engage in during specific situations, as well as b) how to handle behaviors in the moment when they are occurring. When planning for these strategies, it is crucial to always think about why your child is exhibiting the particular challenging behavior. There are four reasons that people engage in maladaptive behaviors, to get something they want, to get attention from someone, to get out of a situation, and to get sensory feedback from the behavior itself. We will briefly review these four reasons in this post.

Children often engage in maladaptive behaviors to get something they want. For example, a child may want a cookie out of reach in the kitchen, so he screams in the kitchen, hitting his head until someone comes in the kitchen and offers what they can until he gets what he wants. The child learned that screaming and hitting his head is an effective way to get a cookie.

Children also engage in maladaptive behaviors to get attention from others. Have you ever been talking with your partner and your child starts screaming or engaging in other bad behaviors? This may be because he wants your attention, for you to pay attention to him.

A very common reason why children engage in challenging behaviors is to get out of things. Imagine a child eating dinner and he starts throwing his food and hitting his caregiver. The caregiver says, “okay, okay, all done,” and allows the child to leave. The child learned that throwing and hitting is an effective way to get out of eating.

Last, children diagnosed with autism engage in challenging behaviors sometimes because they like how the challenging behavior feels. Screaming, pinching their bodies, pulling their hair, banging their heads on hard surfaces are all behaviors that may serve some sensory need. It is important to distinguish this from any of the other reasons previously discussed before determining how to react and what to teach instead.

Take some time to think about your child’s challenging behaviors and why he or she may be engaging in them. Stay posted for future posts outlining strategies for how to react to these behaviors and what to teach your child instead, based on why they are engaging in the behavior.

What have been your specific challenges?

Why do you teach action labels to individuals with autism?

Because this program teaches the individual to engage in and identify common everyday actions/activities and can be used to facilitate the individual’s ‘commenting’ on other’s activities. It may be helpful to take pictures of the individual and family members or other important people in their life engaging in discrete actions and use these pictures to begin teaching the program. Once the individual has learned some actions, be sure to generalize this learning objective.

Parent Tips To Determining Why Behavior Problems Happen

One of the most helpful things to keep in mind in having young children is the realization that each and every behavior has a purpose—an underlying reason for why it occurs. Once the function or purpose of a behavior is identified, it is then possible to teach something different directly targeting the underlying reason for why it occurs.

The functions of behavior are determined by understanding the events that occur before (i.e., antecedents) the challenging behavior as well as the events that occur after the challenging behavior occurs, (i.e., consequences).

In most cases, the function of a child’s challenging behavior is either to obtain or get something or to escape or avoid something.

Types of Behavior Functions:

To obtain…

  • Sensory stimulation (internal)
  • Attention (adults and peers)
  • Objects and materials
  • People
  • Activities
  • Help

To avoid…

  • Sensory Stimulation (pain and discomfort)
  • Attention (adults and peers)
  • Demands
  • Tasks or activities
  • People
  • Activities