Anyone who has a young child knows how complicated it can be to get them to eat a decent meal, or heck, even a decent food. But for children who have sensory issues—like children with autism—getting a child to eat a more balanced diet can prove to be even more of a challenge. Why is that?
Children with autism or sensory issues can be more prone to eating issues because they seek comfort in something that’s familiar to them, such as a packaged or processed food that’s always guaranteed to be the same, as opposed to fresher foods. Recent scientific studies have found that children with autism can be five times more likely to have mealtime challenges, such as food aversions and meal-related tantrums.
Here with the help of Crystal Karges, a maternal health and child feeding specialist at Crystal Karges Nutrition, we’re going to break down why children with sensory issues can be a challenge to feed and what can be done to help create a more balanced diet for children with these concerns.
Tips For Feeding a Child With Sensory Issues
What feeding differences do you see in children with sensory issues?
Children with feeding differences may present more feeding challenges due to sensory processing differences. As a result, this can cause increased selectiveness and sensory sensitivities, which may limit the food options a child feels comfortable eating.
“Children with sensory processing differences may lean more toward processed and starchy foods, because these foods are reliable and consistent in both texture and flavor,” explained Karges. “If you take a common processed food, like a cracker for example, it’s going to be the same, texture- and flavor-wise, every time you pull one from the box and eat it. Other foods in comparison, like fresh fruit for example, widely vary in both texture and flavor. If you have a carton of blueberries, the texture and flavor can be wildly inconsistent even within the same container. You might get a blueberry that’s squishy, moldy, or bitter-tasting. Unreliable textures and flavors can be challenging to a child with sensory processing differences, which is why they may gravitate toward processed foods.”
Do children with sensory issues often stick to a limited diet?
Children with sensory processing differences interpret sensory messages they receive from their bodies differently than neurotypical children. This includes information from the various sensory systems, such as taste (gustatory), smell (olfactory), touch (tactile), hearing (auditory), and interoceptive awareness.
Karges explained that because multiple sensory systems are involved with eating, a child with sensory differences may have more challenges processing the wide range of input that comes with eating experiences. Foods that are more complex in flavor and texture can often be overwhelming for a child who has oral hypersensitivity, for example, which may lead them to avoid those foods that are too overwhelming for their systems to process.
“Children with sensory processing differences will do the best they can to manage sensory dysregulation. Increased selectiveness with food may be a child’s way of avoiding foods and/or eating experiences that are too difficult to manage effectively,” said Karges.
If parents have a child with sensory issues who struggles with diet concerns, what can they do to help that child?
Karges suggested that working with a professional who specializes in responsive feeding approaches can be instrumental in navigating some of the many stressors and concerns that come with feeding and sensory differences in children. “Parents are under more pressure than ever these days, and it can feel like a personal failure if your child is not eating a wide variety of foods,” explained Karges.
“A large part of this is diet culture’s influence on the perspective of what it means to raise a healthy child, which can create unrealistic expectations around how kids eat,” said Karges. “This can subconsciously influence parents to pressure children with sensory processing differences to eat or try foods they may not be ready for, which often increases selectiveness and difficult feeding interactions.”
Karges feels it’s very important that parents know they’re not alone and that their concerns are valid. There are helpful ways to support your child in optimizing their nutrition intake while honoring their individual sensory preferences and unique needs. It takes a lot of patience and love, but at the end of the day, it’s all for the health and well-being of our children.