Sensory Processing Disorder and Autism: Taste and the Picky Eater

Many parents experience the “picky eater” from time to time. As with most differences on the autism spectrum, the difference in describing the picky eater with autism can be found in the intensity or degree.  Because of this relative understanding, one might be critical of the parent with a child with autism and tell them they just need to make their child eat food that is more nutritionally sound. But the “picky eater” is really just someone with sensory processing issues in regards to taste.

taste, picky eater, Sensory Processing Disorder, Aspergers

I was in a meeting where the educators and the parents were discussing the narrow food choices of the daughter as being a nutritional and even behavioral concern. At one point, one of the educators told the parents that she, herself, had a picky eater, and that she just had to lay down the rules and “force” the issue. The teacher proceeded to tell the parents that they should do the same thing. The mother became upset very quickly and in a raised voice told the educator, “Don’t you think I’ve tried everything to make her eat healthy?! I’ve had food spit out at me more times than I can count, and I’ve had the kitchen torn apart after a food-related meltdown . . . I’ve done it ALL!!!” 

I am trying to make the point that we are talking about a matter that goes beyond “picky eating”.

Now that we have this established, let us assume that parents have tried everything, and see how we can further support those efforts.

First and foremost, is there a way to supplement the diet to ensure adequate nutrition?

For many individuals with narrow food interests, it can be very much about the texture of the food[s].  While some individuals will only eat crunchy foods, others might only eat soft or blended foods. Yet others might respond mostly to the smell of the food. In addition, it may be that the need for sameness may contribute significantly to the ritualistic lunch or dinner. Only eating spaghetti for lunch day in and day out might actually be very comforting for an individual with a high stress level due to the neurological differences in autism.

Understanding the drive behind the narrow food preference may offer some insight into how to proceed.  The following are just a few ways to expand upon the food preferences.

  • Offer a visual list of the meal, adding a small amount of new food on the list at a strategic place.  Perhaps the list will indicate starting out with a highly preferred food item, followed by a small amount of a new food items and then again followed by the rest of the highly preferred food and drink.
  • Introduce foods that have similar qualities to their current preferences, but expand slightly beyond.
  • Introduce new food in small increments that will build toward success. For example, if you are trying to add healthy fruit to a diet, perhaps you will place a grape off to the side of the plate for the first few days, followed by a few days of smelling the grape, and then licking the grape and then eating a small section of the grape until the person has an increased tolerance for the grape.
  • If there is a strong interest that the person with ASD finds very appealing, use that interest to help introduce new foods when possible. For instance, cut out a sandwich in the shape of an elephant or SpongeBob or any other preferred item or character.

Make sure to read the other blogs in this series about sense as it relates to autism spectrum disorders:

  1. Smell
  2. Sight
  3. Auditory
  4. Touch

By Lisa Rogers

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The Education (K-12) Blogs and Special Ed Q & A are written and maintained weekly by Lisa Rogers with Educating Diverse Learners. Lisa received her M.A. in Special Education with an endorsement in the area of individuals with severe disabilities. Mrs. Rogers has also created products that have been used throughout the state of Texas for training purposes. Through the Association for Texas Professional Educators [ATPE], Ms. Rogers has produced an online course that targets the importance of visual strategies for student with autism spectrum disorders and just released her highly anticipated book titled: Visual Supports for Visual Thinkers.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

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