Written by Sarah Milano
Feeding issues can be a problem for parents of all children, but trends show that children with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) can experience even more eating problems and disorders. Although few reliable studies show an absolute cause-and-effect link between the autism spectrum and eating disorders, the noticeable trends indicate definite relationships between what seem at first to be entirely different concerns. In fact, the lack of definitive and reliable studies may simply inhibit a common and well-researched plan. Because of the lack of reliable studies, parents and caregivers often have a hard time finding specialists to offer help in treating children. Without a consistent plan, parents often give in to children’s demands and attempt to give more attention and to simply offer the food the child enjoys. This trend often encourages the child to resist food even more to attain the desired attention and to fear unknown foods, further increasing the neophobia—the fear of new foods and experiences—which may be the underlying problem.
This lack of sufficient studies claiming a direct cause and effect between the autistic spectrum and eating disorders does not indicate that medical scholars fail to see close and recurring connections. In fact, some scholars believe that at least fifty percent of children diagnosed with ASD also have gastrointestinal differences that can cause eating disorders well beyond just being picky or stubborn. Parent surveys have also suggested that seventy percent of children diagnosed with ASD shows signs of being picky eaters. These surveys and studies suggest not only that ASD probably has some direct relationships with eating disorders but also that the cause of these disorders may have different or even multiple causes.
Before parents can even consider developing a plan of attack to combat eating disorders, many health and wellness concerns must be taken into consideration. For example, children may have physical complications that make certain foods unsafe, and forcing certain foods upon children with these limitations is obviously a bad idea. For example, a child may have a cleft palate or motor skills difficulties. Medical problems, such as allergies and acid reflux, can also cause an avoidance well beyond children simply trying to be obstinate.
Even when a parent deems a plan to be safe, patience must be one of the most important elements in implementing the plan. Parents even need to consider that it’s not always the taste of the food that causes the child’s inhibition. For example, the food’s texture and the desire for specific utensils can cause a child’s refusal to eat. The global autism advocacy organization Autism Speaks suggests “Seven Ways to Help a Picky Eater with Autism,” a list of strategies for expanding an autistic child’s diet: rule out medical issues, stay calm, take small steps before tasting, understand textures, make food fun, offer choices, and monitor rewards. Much of the valuable advice in this list requires patience and understanding. Like many related issues, controlling an autistic child’s aversion to food involves solving a serious problem with an enjoyable treatment. While too much positive attention encourages negative behavior and more abstinence, a negative reaction only increases the fear associated with certain foods and with new experiences in general.
Sometimes, reading about the trials of another parent who experiences similar problems can be helpful. One of the most highly recommended books for that purpose is Brenda Legge’s Can’t Eat, Won’t Eat. Legge never claims to be an expert dietician, but she has a son who suffers from Asperger’s syndrome. Although the book includes well-researched advice, the greatest benefit seems to be that Legge explains her own systematical attempts to encourage her child to eat. Legge also surveys other parents with similar circumstances. Rather than beginning with a doctoral thesis on a test subject, the book is written by a mother who experiences real human doubts that parents are likely to experience: Is she being too lenient? Is her son simply acting out to get his own way? Is her cooking so bad that it’s just not fit to eat? The book then chronicles how she avoids bad advice and decides on an action plan that enables her son to eat and, therefore, to survive.
Placing a label on a child does not treat that child from any disorders, and the ASD label will not encourage a child to eat; the label may give a parent confidence and direction in seeking to help the child overcome difficulties, including food aversions. As an online parents’ help guide says, “[…] no matter what doctors, teachers, and other specialists call the autism spectrum disorder, it’s your child’s unique needs that are truly important.” The studies are definitive, but the combination of global resources, community understanding, and parent diligence can help treat food aversions in autistic children.