By Karen Ansel, MS, RD
Caring for a child with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) can be challenging on many levels. And healthy eating is no exception. "Whenever a child has a disability the importance of nutrition escalates," says Joan Guthrie Medlen, MEd, RD. "For a child with ASD, a healthy, balanced diet can make a world of difference in their ability to learn, how they manage their emotions and how they process information." Because children with ASD often have restricted diets as well as difficulty sitting through mealtimes, they may not be getting all the nutrients they need, particularly calcium and protein.
If you have a child with ASD, try these nutrition strategies:
Be prepared for pickiness: Many parents find their child's sensitivity to tastes, colors, smells and textures to be the biggest barriers to a balanced diet. Getting your child to try new foods — especially those that are soft and slippery — may seem nearly impossible. You may find that your child avoids certain foods or even entire food groups. One of the easiest ways to approach sensory issues is to tackle them away from the kitchen table, says Medlen. Take your children to the supermarket and let them choose a new food to experiment with. When you get home, research it together on the Internet to learn how and where it grows. Then, decide together how to prepare it. When you're done, don't worry if your child doesn't want to eat it. Simply becoming familiar with new foods in a low-pressure way can eventually help your child become a more flexible eater.
Make mealtimes routine: "Children with ASD have to work harder at mealtimes," says Medlen. A busy kitchen, bright lights and even the way the furniture is arranged are all potential stressors. Making meals as predictable and routine as possible can help. Serving meals at the same time every day is one of the simplest ways to reduce stress. In addition, try to put yourself in your child's shoes and think about what concessions you can make for easier mealtimes. If your child is sensitive to lights, try dining by candlelight. Let him or her pick a favorite food to include at every meal. Or let your child choose a favorite seat at the table.
Seek guidance for special diets: You may have heard that a gluten- or casein-free diet can improve symptoms of ASD. While some studies indicate that these diets may be effective for certain children, more research is needed. "In my practice, I’ve seen children who suddenly do better following a dietary change, but I've seen more that do not," says Medlen. Keep in mind that very restrictive diets require careful planning to make sure your child's nutrition needs are being met. Consult with a registered dietitian nutritionist before making any drastic changes to your child's diet.
Finally, don't go it alone. "In addition to working with your child's health-care team, seek out parents who have had success with food interventions," says Laura Lagano, MS, RD. "Support is crucial when you're raising a child with special needs."
Reviewed March 2013