Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) causes a host of neurological and physical symptoms. One of the most noteworthy ones pertains to food sensitivities.
This article was written for parents that want to assist their children with autism with overcoming eating difficulties, choosing an appropriate diet, and maintaining healthy bodily levels of nutrients and vitamins.
Common Medical and Nutritional Challenges for Kids with Autism
Children with autism typically experience medical issues that impact their gastrointestinal (GI) tract and nutrition.
Firstly, if you suspect that your ASD-diagnosed son or daughter has a GI problem, you want to keep an eye on these symptoms:
- Abdominal distention (which can lead to eating too much or constipation without having an underlying sickness)
- Discomfort in the stomach or GI tract
- Fecal impaction (constipation patients are more likely to develop this condition)
- Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD)
- Leaky gut syndrome
- Regurgitation of food (this entails spitting out or emitting it after it enters the stomach, even if the child doesn't have an illness or health condition that may cause this)
- Releasing gasses excessively
Additionally, your child with autism could run into the following nutritional shortcomings:
- Intolerance towards certain foods
- Problems with eating or being fed
As a parent, you can minimize the effect of these health issues by feeding your child meals with specific ingredients while avoiding others.
Since each kid with autism spectrum disorder is different, it is difficult to define a particular diet that suits every person that has ASD.
Nonetheless, you will probably provide your son or daughter with relief by making dietary changes that omit the following ingredients and food items:
- Casein proteins (you should consider a casein-free diet for your child, which leaves out milk, whey, and additional nutrients that are high in casein)
- Gluten (a gluten-free diet excludes several types of grains)
- Individual proteins, namely casein, gluten, and others
- processed foods
Why does removing these foods work?
Some of the proteins and ingredients that we listed above could create inflammation in the gut and stomach. In turn, this might lead to further problems in the GI tract and organs.
You may prevent this from happening when you identify the nutrients that are causing these difficulties and take them out of your child's diet.
How to Test the Foods and See if Symptoms Change
Before you make any meal plan changes, you want to initially pinpoint the foods that are affecting your son or daughter's GI tract.
To so, follow these steps:
- Pick an ingredient or item to remove, such as eggs, gluten, and/or seafood.
- Gradually and slowly reintroduce these ingredients to your kid's diet.
- If your child's symptoms reappear or get worse, you will know that the food product is what's causing the problem. Consequently, you must permanently eliminate it from their meals.
- If nothing changes and no symptoms emerge, you can go back to step 1 and test how other ingredients or items could impact your autistic boy or girl's GI organs.
Keep in mind that kids with certain medical conditions have unique dietary requirements.
Dietary Restrictions for Those Who Have Autism and Seizures
Unfortunately, it is not uncommon for children with autism to also suffer from seizures. In those cases, you may want to consider one or both of these diets:
- Ketogenic (Keto) Diet: Simply put, a keto regimen entails meals that are high in fats and low in carbohydrates.
- Sugar or Yeast-Free Diet: While this might greatly help, you should remember to avoid foods that can cause GI issues even if they don't contain any sugar or yeast (fish and seafood, for instance).
Downsides to the Keto Diet
Before you switch your autistic child to a keto diet, you must first talk to their doctor and/or a registered dietitian so that they supervise the transition.
This is important since a keto diet, when implemented the wrong way, can negatively impact your son or daughter's growth, weight, and cholesterol levels. A lot of parents attain good results from a keto meal plan by combining it with other ingredients and foods.
What if my child is a picky eater?
Some kids are very selective when it comes to food. This is even more likely to be the case among those who were diagnosed with ASD.
If this applies to your child, here is how you can effectively cater to their dietary needs:
- Avoid textures that your son or daughter doesn't like.
- Give them their own plate, particularly when they feel uncomfortable with sharing one.
- Introduce new foods and meals in a gradual and slow manner.
- Make meal time more enjoyable and fun for your kid.
- Pick ingredients with colors that your child likes.
- Prepare their food in the shape(s) that they prefer.
- Talk to their doctor about supplements and vitamins when your kid's picky eating habits are preventing them from obtaining the nutrients that their body requires.
In short, your ultimate goal is to eliminate or minimize any GI challenges that your autistic son or daughter is facing and, at the same time, ensure that they're consuming a healthy amount of vitamins and nutrients.
You could do this by identifying the specific meals or ingredients that they're insensitive towards and, from there, making the necessary dietary adjustments.
By being creative, many parents can create a food plan that pleases even the pickiest and most selective autistic eaters.
How ABA therapy can help children with autism and eating challenges
ABA (Applied Behavior Analysis) therapy is a widely recognized treatment for children with autism. It aims to improve specific behaviors and skills through reinforcement strategies. One of the many areas where ABA can be particularly beneficial is in addressing eating challenges, often faced by children with autism.
Children with autism might have sensory sensitivities, rigidity in routines, or anxiety that can lead to restrictive and selective eating habits. This can cause nutritional deficiencies and impact their overall health and development.
- Increasing Food Variety: ABA therapy can help increase the variety of foods a child is willing to try. Therapists can use a technique called systematic desensitization, which involves gradual exposure to new foods, starting with looking at the food, then touching it, smelling it, and finally tasting it.
- Improving Mealtime Behaviors: ABA can also focus on improving mealtime behaviors. This might involve teaching the child to sit at the table for the duration of the meal, use utensils appropriately, or chew and swallow safely.
- Reducing Food Refusal: Techniques such as differential reinforcement can be used to reduce food refusal. This involves providing positive reinforcement (like praise, tokens, or access to a preferred activity) when the child accepts a bite of a new or non-preferred food and not providing this reinforcement when they refuse.
- Teaching Adaptive Skills: ABA can teach skills like self-feeding, using utensils, opening food containers, and cleaning up after eating. These skills can promote independence and ease mealtime struggles.
- Creating Positive Mealtime Environment: ABA promotes a positive mealtime environment, helping children associate eating with a pleasant experience rather than stress or discomfort.
- Involving the Family: ABA doesn’t just work with the child - it involves the entire family. Therapists can provide parents and siblings with strategies to support positive eating behaviors at home, promoting consistency and generalization of learned skills.
In conclusion, ABA therapy offers comprehensive strategies to address the eating challenges faced by children with autism. However, it's important to remember that every child is unique and what works for one might not work for another. Therefore, ABA interventions should be individualized and regularly monitored for effectiveness.