Diet and Autism
What is Autism?Autism describes autistic spectrum disorders (ASD), a neurological disorder that impacts a person's communication, activities, social understanding and interests.
So how is autism and diet related? Children with autism can be picky eaters, which could cause them to have nutrient deficiencies. It can be frustrating for parents to try to provide nutritious meals that their child would like. Here are some tips to help your child overcome the dislikes and improve their overall eating habits.
Tips and Recommendations:
Keep a food diary. A food diary is a great way to understand your child's eating habits and patterns of likes and dislikes. Write down what, where, when and how much your child eats. Try to also notice if your child's eating is different around other people or other distractions such as toys.
Stick to a routine. Have meals and snacks at around the same time everyday.
Ask your child why he/she does not like certain foods. Is it the colour, texture or smell of the food? Or, is it the packaging that it came from? This will help you understand why your child does not like the food.
Change one small thing at a time. Offer similar foods in the same taste or texture to what your child already eats. For example, if your child likes to eat crunchy foods, try apples, celery, or whole grain crackers. If your child enjoys strawberry ice cream, try fresh strawberries.
Offer a choice. Give your child different options to choose from. Ask "Would you rather eat this food or that food today?" You can also show the different food choices or use pictures, if your child has difficulty understanding.
Offer a new food with at least one of your child’s favourite foods. Your child can potentially link the new food with something that he/she enjoys.
Offer a variety of new foods and take small steps when offering new foods. Try to introduce the new food by placing it in your child's play. If he/she is okay with that, then follow the next steps. Ask your child to:
- Touch the food - let him/her play with the food.
- Smell the food
- Bring the food to his/her lips.
- Touch the food with his/her tongue.
- Taste the food.
- Taste the food every day for two weeks. It can take some time for your child to start enjoying the new food.
Eat together as often as possible. Parents are important role models. By eating together, your child will eat better and learn table manners.
Give lots of rewards. With every new food that your child tries, give a reward even if he/she didn't like the food. The important matter is that he/she has tried it!
Be patient. It may take months for your child to make small changes and try new foods. Just be patient and keep offering new foods with lot of love and rewards along the way.
Overall, a child with ASD has the same nutritional needs as other children. However, there are many questions about alternative therapies in order to reduce autistic symptoms. Here is what the research shows.
Omega-3 Fatty Acids There is currently not enough evidence for recommendation of omega-3 fat supplementation to help improve autistic behaviours.
Vitamins and Minerals Individual and specific vitamins and minerals have not shown to improve autistic behaviour. However, research has shown that daily multivitamin and mineral supplement, without iron, may improve sleep and gastrointestinal problems in children with ASD. Speak with your doctor or dietitian before starting any supplement
Gluten-free, Casein-free Diets Some children who follow a gluten-free and casein-free diet for a short term may experience improvement in autistic symptoms. However, there aren't enough evidence to support this. It is important to consider that children with ASD are already picky eaters and by further restricting the diet, it may put them at risk of nutrition deficiencies.
Bottom line, it is important to avoid restricting diets and provide a variety of foods in order to make sure your child is getting all the nutrients he/she needs.
Reference: PEN (2013), Autism Practice Guideline Summary.