Research also tells us that many individuals with autism tend to have strong preferences for carbohydrates and processed foods, while rejecting fruits and vegetables. This, too, may reflect an aversion to strong tastes and textures.
If you or a loved one has ASD, paying close attention to the foods being consumed is particularly important. For our patients with autism, we often recommend an elimination diet—eliminating gluten, dairy, sugar, corn, soy, and other categories of potentially allergenic foods for one month.
Eating problems are common in autistic people.
Issues such as only eating very few foods, not being able to eat at school, going long periods of time without eating and pica (eating non-foods) can feel difficult to understand and manage.
Base your meals on fruits, vegetables, whole grains, olive oil, beans, nuts, legumes, and seeds. Use seafood, poultry, and other lean meats as your main sources of meat. Limit the amount of red meats and sugars.
Atypical eating behaviours have been recognised as common in autism. Such food behaviours can include very limited food preferences, hypersensitivity to food textures or temperatures, and pocketing food without swallowing.
Many adults on the spectrum struggle with food and cooking because of sensory stimuli, extreme sensitivity to change, and a strong preference for a narrow selection of ingredients.
The feeding concern most commonly observed in children with autism is food selectivity, or eating a limited variety of foods. This most often involves preference for starches and snack foods and more frequent rejection of fruits and vegetables.
Many autistic people struggle with interoception. This means that they have a difficult time feeling and interpreting their body's signals. This connects with disordered eating behavior because it means they may miss their body's cues that they are hungry or full.
Third, many people affected by autism experience what we call hyperphagia. This is an intense desire to eat that goes beyond true hunger. Given unchecked access to food, someone with hyperphagia may eat almost constantly.
Sensory overload, changes in routine, social isolation, co-occurring conditions, and lack of support can all exacerbate the symptoms of autism. However, with early intervention, therapy, and support, individuals with autism can manage these challenges and improve their quality of life.
We call this hypo- or hyper-responsiveness, and it can include a person's response to flavors and food textures. Naturally, a blast of sweetness provides a powerful sensory input that many of us crave. This craving can be particularly powerful for an individual affected by autism.
Many autistic people experience hypersensitivity to bright lights or certain light wavelengths (e.g., LED or fluorescent lights). Certain sounds, smells, textures and tastes can also be overwhelming. This can result in sensory avoidance – trying to get away from stimuli that most people can easily tune out.
Causes of overeating in autistic children and teenagers include habits, obsessions, unpredictable mealtimes, sensory sensitivities and emotions. It can help to keep snack foods out of reach or sight, replace snacks with other activities, and aim for predictable meals.
Many autistic people have intense and highly-focused interests, often from a fairly young age. These can change over time or be lifelong. It can be art, music, gardening, animals, postcodes or numbers. For many younger children it's Thomas the Tank Engine, dinosaurs or particular cartoon characters.
Eating together with other people is a common activity to socialize and feel a sense of belonging. But autistic adults often prefer to eat alone, though they have a desire to socialize.
Being autistic can make fatigue and burnout more likely, due to the pressures of social situations and sensory overload. If your child or the person you care for is experiencing fatigue or burnout, helping them to manage their energy levels is essential, as this guide explains.
Although fatigue and burnout can happen to anyone, autistic people are more likely to be affected by this. It is often the result of doing more than you can cope with for too long and can be an immediate response to something, or be caused by a build up of things over time.
Children with autism are often clumsy, physically awkward or uncoordinated.
Whilst adults and some children may enjoy trying new and different dishes, autistic children tend to prefer food that is less stimulating. The taste of chicken nuggets is not overwhelming, a characteristic which is welcome to children with sensory issues.
It's something you're born with. Signs of autism might be noticed when you're very young, or not until you're older. If you're autistic, you're autistic your whole life. Autism is not a medical condition with treatments or a "cure".
Some people on the autism spectrum may seek social opportunities and may initiate social interactions themselves, others may enjoy social situations and interactions when they are initiated effectively by others.
The New Golden Rule
Listen to other people's experiences without projecting your own. Respect their needs even when they are different from your own. You do not have to understand someone to respect them or help them.