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This article is evidence-based, verified by Dr. Ahmed Zayed
Eating is a challenge for many children with Autism, although it doesn’t have to be. Sometimes, the issue can be food allergies or even a physical issue. If a child is non-verbal, it may be hard for them to explain why they cannot eat certain foods. In this case, exploring all options, including physical issues is a must, followed by feeding therapy.
Disclaimer: This article is not meant to be an expert reference or all-inclusive. It is also not intended to advise or replace professional consultation, but only share experiences and resources that parents and caregivers might find helpful or interesting.
When a child with Autism experiences issues with feeding, challenges can begin as early as infancy with breast or bottle feeding. Issues can continue into childhood and adulthood. It is common for persons with Autism to experience a wide range of feeding issues that range from physical issues that inhibit eating or allergies and sensory processing sensitivities to certain foods. The challenge here is to figure out which of these things an autistic person may be experiencing. In some cases, it could be all of the above.
Child Feeding Issues: 3 Challenges To Look For
1. Bring your child to a specialized professional to evaluate if they may have a physical issue that is keeping them from eating properly.
2. Get your child evaluated for Sensory Processing Disorder. This disorder is very common in children with Autism and can affect eating.
3. Make sure to get your child checked for allergies. Sometimes food aversions or issues with weight gain can be traced back to an allergy to the food they are consuming. Allergies and the stress hormone, cortisol, go hand-in-hand. You can read more about how they’re related here.
Having a child with feeding issues evaluated for these three things will help remove potential roadblocks for your child and help advance their journey toward successful feeding.
A Real-Life Example of Physical Feeding Issues
A child with Autism can experience feeding issues as early as infancy. One parent shared that their child had trouble breastfeeding immediately after birth. A mother shared her family’s personal story. The breastfeeding “dyad” experienced several symptoms. The mother experienced low milk production, clogged ducts, and pain. The infant, who was later diagnosed with Autism at two years old, experienced sleeplessness, colic symptoms, restlessness, and abnormal bowel movements. The mother pursued several professional evaluations from local pediatricians without the successful resolution of their issues. Eventually, the mother sought help from a speech pathologist. The speech pathologist was able to diagnose the infant with lip and tongue tie.
The dyad finally found relief after the infant underwent a tongue and lip tie revision. This mother and child are among the few who find relief from this difficult-to-diagnose condition. Many children continue with feeding difficulties caused by ties even well into adulthood because of the lack of knowledge about this condition. This condition can be particularly challenging for children with Autism who already face so many challenges in their development. Adding an undiagnosed lip and tongue tie to their problems can make it that much harder for therapies to help a child.
Ties are only one example of several physical issues that could be the culprit behind a child’s feeding issues. This is a prime example of a parent being persistent in seeking the proper help to resolve a physical issue behind abnormal feeding. Seeking several opinions from experienced specialized professionals is a must when ruling out physical issues in a child with Autism who is experiencing feeding issues.
Here’s an insightful interview with Dr. Ghaheri’s who discusses improvements following Tongue-Tie, and Lip-Tie release
Dr. Ghaheri’s 7-page paper can also be found here.
Sensory Processing Disorder for Children with Autism
A more common culprit behind feeding issues in children with Autism is Sensory Processing Disorder. Consider this statistic from an article on Autism Research and Treatment:
“Approximately 25% of all children experience eating problems during the early years of life, but this number may rise to as high as 80% in children with developmental difficulties…The frequency of “selective eating” by either food type or texture is significantly higher in children with ASD than in typically developing children.”https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3420765/
Sensory processing disorder means that a child has difficulty taking what they are feeling and translating it correctly to their brain. There is either a disconnect or an abnormal reaction to a stimulus. What this translates to for parents of children on the Autism spectrum can often be very specific eating difficulties, such as a child only eating 5 five “safe” foods that they feel comfortable eating or only eating foods of a specific color or texture such as beige and crunchy. Sensory Processing Disorder can be professionally diagnosed and helped with the correct therapies which may include feeding therapy.
Food Allergies and Difficulties with Autistic Children
Children on the Autism Spectrum can have food sensitivities related to allergies. Some children have sensitivities or milk or even gluten allergies such as Celiac. If this is the case, this can lead to children only eating those few foods that have not caused them distress because of their allergies.
This is particularly challenging for Children with Autism who are non-verbal. They are less able to communicate how they feel after eating certain foods that might trigger an allergy. Particularly concerning gluten allergies in children with Autism, some research shows a prevalence of this allergy in children with Autism spectrum disorder. This link is by no means solid, but it is worth investigating for a child with Autism who may show a particular sensitivity to gluten or feeding issues that may be related to consuming foods that contain gluten.
Helping a child on the Autism spectrum with feeding difficulties can be a long journey for the parent and the child. If your child does experience feeding difficulties, it is highly recommended to get professional help. If after ruling out all of the above issues, your child still experiences feeding issues, do not despair. Seek help from a specialized Autism therapist such as an ABA therapist.
If your child with autism does have allergies, ensure you do everything to prevent contact with those food types – especially are common places like the home, school, and other families.
Remember to be patient with your loved ones as this can be a difficult situation. Don’t be afraid to ask for a helping hand from others as well as from experienced professionals who are equipped to help your child with feeding.
Dr. Ahmed Zayed, MD holds a baccalaureate of Medicine and Surgery. An avid contributor to the Huffington Post and Chicago Tribune, Dr. Zayed believes in providing accurate and accessible information to general readers. With years of writing and editing content in the medical niche, Dr. Zayed likes to think of himself as a man with a mission, keeping the internet free of false medical information.