** PLEASE NOTE **
This blog post is based upon my own experience, the knowledge that I have gained through experience over the use from myself within the classroom, training courses and knowledge learnt from other professionals within the sector. The same method does NOT work for every child as we all know every child with ASD is completely different. Do not rely on myself for medical facts- I am not a qualified doctor and I am unable to offer any medical advice.
Healthy eating is all around us - you can’t switch on the TV for longer than 5 minutes without some sort of advert for healthy eating/healthy living being on there. It can be so hard - what is healthy these days? We are told to watch calories, sugar, fat there is so much to watch, yet with a child diagnosed with ASD - surely we are busy enough without the extra worry?!
I’m sure at one point we've all had the “what do you mean they won’t eat fruit or veg?” Some just don’t get it - the daily struggles, the sensory issues, texture, taste, how it looks, if it’s touching something else. So to even put food on a plate at times can be hard work without having to bribe your child to eat their fruit and veg too!
So, how can you try and entice your child with ASD to eat their fruit and veg? Well first off, you’re going to have roll it all the way back and think about exactly what your child’s issues are.
First off - is there a medical issue? It can be so hard trying to figure out if your child has a medical issue. Could it be that they KNOW if they eat that they WILL get a bad stomach? Do their teeth hurt when they chew? Could there be allergies? Intolerance? Your best bet here is to find a great and understanding doctor and discuss with them.
Next, are there sensory issues involved here? Can your child cope if food is touching each other? Do you need to invest in a food separator tray? Is it the texture? Can they not eat certain textures ? Wet, dry, thick etc. I know I can’t handle eating anything thick and creamy - thick gravy, custard, cream etc. anything like that and I gag. Now I can express my issues, but your child may not be able to - so it is a lot of guess work i’m afraid!
Visuals, visuals visuals. I know you’re probably thinking, here goes another textbook hero, shouting her mouth off about visuals - but honestly, when used in the right way, they are SO beneficial! Now this is totally down to the individual child - you could use a ‘first,then’ board - first try pea then eat chicken piece etc. just make this as relevant as possible, it could be made with symbols, words, whatever you feel your child learns best with. Introduce a reward system, you may give them a sticker for each piece of fruit/veg they try, when they reach 5/10 they get a surprise!
Introduce things slowly. For example, this could be by putting a few peas on the corner of the plate, 2 or 3 carrot chunks etc. Do not overload them - build it up slowly! If you think your child is ready to start tasting be prepared for different reactions. In a perfectly magical world, your child will pick up those vegetables/fruit and eat them, enjoying them! But we are in reality.. so you can approach this a few different ways. Can they put it to their lips? Yep first day just put that pea right up against your child’s lips. Are they repulsed? Gagging? Displaying behaviours? If so, take a break, give them their reward (if applicable) then direct them back to the food they enjoy. If they don’t mind - see if they will eat it! If they didn’t like it, the next day try to encourage them to lick it, use visuals to explain what you want or show your child by you doing it. The next day move on to putting it into their mouth and seeing if they can hold it on their tongue for count of 10. Slowly but gradually increase the time, as humans we have this automatic reaction to chew if we can feel something in our mouth for a long period of time so this could be a great trick.
Did that work? If not prepare yourself for my next suggestion. So this is a bit of a hard one to explain. So our example dinner is sausage, mash and peas. The child in question, given the opportunity/choice will ONLY eat the sausage. So we have some bargaining to do. This may seem like a step back to you but it can work - i’ve used it myself numerous times and see nothing but positive results. Cut up the sausage into really small pieces and I mean small. Next, mash up the peas and mash so it’s all as one. Now scoop a bit of mash/peas onto the fork, then add the sausage on the end. So the child can see the sausage, to start with you may have to help guide the fork into their mouth - they may put it into their mouth to only eat the sausage, gently guide (and I mean gently, you don’t want to stab their throat!) the fork into their mouth so they eat the full amount. IF they are adamant to only eat that piece of sausage, switch it around - i’ve also done this - so pick up a bit of sausage on the fork first, then scoop some mash and peas. If they want to eat the sausage - then they have to eat the mash and peas! This has surprisingly worked really well over my 5 years of experience. But it also means less meltdowns - something that isn’t nice to witness or deal with, especially when their anxiety levels are so high from the food issue!
Another way is to make a game out of it! Do lots of cookery sessions together, introduce messy play with bits of food - pasta, rice etc. Getting them to experiment with all different textures. One that always goes down well is fruit kebabs drizzled with melted chocolate!
Or if the weather is hot, introduce fruit in lollies! Make your own lollies! Your child probably won't even realise they are eating the fruit until it's too late and already eaten!
If your child understands/appreciates awards, at the end of every week you could have a ‘foodie certificate’ and list the names of the foods they’ve tried with pictures, present it to them and make a big deal out of it - if they are shown for it to be fabulous and a really great thing to do then they will want to repeat the experience.
Just be careful at introducing foods - remember don’t overload, introduce things slowly and have lots of time and patience. Be sure to model yourself too! You can’t expect your child to eat veg if you refuse to eat it!
But most of all, if your child is fit and healthy don’t stress too much about their diet. Liaise with School staff to find out how your child eats there, liaise for different foodie ideas etc. You are not alone in the foodie battle, you are doing your best and you are a great autism parent - don’t forget it!