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Understanding autism and the unique challenges around food

Understanding Autism and the Unique Challenges Around Food

This article is based around my own experience and from talking to other neurodivergent families. Any serious concerns (such as AFRID or eating disorders or health issues) should be taken to an expert. From a neurodivergent perspective… we are all different- do what works for you and your family. ❤️


Autism affects communication and how a person experiences the world, and can bring unique challenges when it comes to food and meal times.

Many autistic individuals have sensory differences and can face difficulties with social interaction, which can make mealtimes a stressful experience. In this blog post, we will discuss these issues in depth, providing insight and practical suggestions to make meal times less daunting for autistic individuals and their families.


Sensory Sensitivities

Food can trigger real sensory issues for many autistic individuals. Sensory sensitivities can relate to various aspects of food such as textures, tastes, smells, and even the appearance. Certain food textures may feel too squashy, squidgy, or even hairy, causing strong aversion.

We are all different and some of us can be hypersensitive while others are hyposensitive which means that some of us can need quite plain foods while others crave strong flavours and spice. Additionally, the appearance of food, such as colour, can also play a role, with some individuals finding certain colours like beige to be safer.

For those of us who take in extra details, all this sensory input can be too much. One way to help manage this is to separate the foods on the plate. Additionally, many autistic individuals will often have 'safe foods' that they know they can eat without worrying. It's not uncommon for them to eat the same foods day after day, as it provides a sense of safety and predictability.


As a parent of Autistic children I know the importance of good nutrition for my children but also some of the challenges that autistic children can face. It is important to:

- Respect preferences: Respect the individual's food preferences and try to incorporate preferred foods into meals.

- Use food chaining: This involves identifying preferred foods and gradually introducing similar foods to expand the variety in their diet if needed. But always talk about it and explain what is happening. It should not be forced or feared! Using foods we are already happy with can feel safer to us.


Unpredictability and Routine

The unpredictability of food can be quite distressing for an autistic person who often thrives on the predictable. Not knowing what the food will taste like can be enough to not want to eat it. A strawberry, for example, tastes different every single time, which can be distressing. This is often why foods like crackers, pasta or chicken nuggets are preferred; they taste the same each time.

Many autistic people prefer routine - it helps us to order and organise a world that can feel chaotic. Consistent meal times and familiar routines can help establish predictability and reduce anxiety around meal time.


Communication and Social Challenges

Meal times often involve sitting around a table, a scenario which comes with its own set of challenges. Communication can be difficult for those with Auditory Processing Disorder, when there are others talking or background noise. It can be overwhelming and difficult to understand what people are saying when you can’t filter out unwanted noise.

Moreover, there are other sensory factors at play. The smells, bright lights, the touch of other people, the utensils, type of plate - these can all contribute to the sensory overload. There can also be expectations of eye contact or small talk conversation, which can feel uncomfortable to autistic people. Having a familiar routine or safe foods available can help. Sometimes, using ear defenders or tuning into an iPad might help to tune out other sensory input. Sometimes, eating alone is most comfortable. It’s important to make your own way of eating as a family work for you, minimising the stress.


Interoception

Interoception refers to the ability of the body to provide information about the internal condition. This sense is often ‘dulled’ in autistic people. We might not realise we are hungry until we are reminded or actually start eating. Or we might suddenly feel very hungry as we didn’t sense the ‘build-up’. These challenges can be misinterpreted as impatience or indecisiveness, but they are real struggles for some autistic people.


Overall, it's important to approach the challenges related to autism and food with patience, understanding, and a willingness to individualise mealtimes based on the unique needs of each person. By understanding and accommodating the specific needs of all the family, it's possible to create a more positive and enjoyable mealtime experience for everyone involved.


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