Vegetables are Yucky! Coping with Food Selectivity and Autism
Mealtime and eating can be a significant source of stress for children with autism and their parents. From not eating enough to overeating and extremely picky eating or “food selectivity,” rigid behaviors and food sensitivities can trap children with autism in a diet lacking variety and nutrition.
Why is picky eating common among children with autism? Food selectively may occur for a variety of reasons: aversions to a particular taste, texture, smell or brand of food, gastrointestinal problems, or previous negative experience are among the common possibilities.
“Finding the right treatment for a child with food selectivity is critical” says Emily S. Kuschner, PhD, a licensed clinical psychologist at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia specializing in food selectivity. Dr. Kuschner developed the Building Up Food Flexibility and Exposure Treatment (BUFFET) program to help youth with autism learn to cope with anxiety and inflexibility around food and mealtimes using cognitive behavioral skills and exposure therapy. “The more children can learn to cope with their stress and rigidity about food, the more likely they are to have the skills to try new foods and expand the variety in their diets,” says Dr. Kuschner.
“We often think of children and teens with autism as picky-eaters, however, typically developing children are also selective in their food preferences and narrow in their diets. We need more research to determine how, or even if, food selectivity differs between both groups of children”, Dr. Kuschner says. Her upcoming study will survey individuals with autism and their parents about their diet and food preferences, with the goal of learning how food selectively (and its impact on daily life) differs between individuals with ASD and their neurotypical peers.
For those interested in participating in food selectivity research, Dr. Kuschner’s collaborator, Dr. Tanja Kral, Associate Professor of Nutrition Science at the University of Pennsylvania, recently received NIH funding to build an exciting, interactive mobile health application (app) to improve nutrition in children with autism who are picky eaters. Children with autism between the ages of 6 and 10, and their parents, are invited to be part of four 90‐min advisory board sessions to provide the team with feedback about the design and functionality of the nutrition app. Compensation will be provided. For more information, please contact Dr. Tanja Kral, Associate Professor of Nutrition Science, at (215) 573-7512 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
For individuals and families struggling with food selectively: