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Autistic Lens

Autistic food aversion: Understanding, treatment, and support

June 1st, 2023

Aly Laube

For Autistic adults, allies, caregivers

Food aversion, or the strong dislike or avoidance of certain foods or textures, is common amongst autistic people — and it doesn’t end with childhood. Disordered eating, which often comes as a result, can have serious consequences for the health and well-being of autistic adults, so it’s crucial to take positive steps toward managing symptoms.

Sensory processing issues and stress around socializing might also contribute to food aversion, which is useful to understand so you can help make eating a more positive experience for yourself.

Understanding 

Someone holding an apple in one hand and a donut in the other.
For autistic people with food aversion, some flavours and textures can cause significant distress. (Pexels/Andres Ayrton)

Food aversion might look like refusing to eat new foods, sticking to a limited range of foods, and engaging in restrictive eating behaviours or preferences. Specific environments where eating is common, like parties or busy restaurants, may also contribute to sensitivities around food. Some autistic folks also eat non-food items, which can cause serious health issues, depending on what the item is. 

Disordered eating may include restrictive eating, binge eating, purging, and more. These behaviours can cause unnatural weight gain or loss, digestive problems, and of course, major mental health challenges. 

A study published in the Journal of Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics found that, compared to typically developing children, children with autism were more likely to have atypical eating behaviours, including food aversions, preference for specific food brands, and food rituals (Nadon et al., 2011). 

And another study from the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders found that among adults with autism, 56% reported atypical eating behaviours, such as selective eating or eating non-food items. 

Treatment and support

A person holding two containers of pre-made meals.
Meal planning, talking to a nutritionist, and experimenting with your diet can help. (Pexels/Sarah Chai)
Tips for autistic adults 

Treatment for food aversion will vary depending on each person’s likes and dislikes. Consider building a meal plan around the things you do enjoy, and then figure out how much is missing nutritionally. Speaking to a nutritionist might also be a good idea to ensure your diet is balanced. If that’s not an option, ask a trusted loved one if they can help you keep a meal log or check in at mealtimes to see if you’re on track. Talking to other autistic people about how you feel about food can also help.  

If you’re managing your own intake every day and want to expand your horizons in terms of what you can eat, introduce new things gradually. You can start with dishes that have similar flavours or textures to what you already like and experiment with different cooking methods to see what works. Eat in a comfortable, quiet, low-sensory space where you won’t be too distracted. And if you need a distraction, do something you enjoy: Watch a comforting show, play music, or read a book. 

It’s also important to address underlying anxiety or stress that might be contributing to struggles with eating. Addressing those in a safe space, hopefully with a therapist or loved one you trust, can make a big difference in feeling understood and valued during hard times. 

Tips for caregivers
Two people on a park bench sharing a pizza.
Being supportive of autistic adults with food aversion during mealtime can be very helpful. (Pexels/Budgeron Bach)

Caregivers and healthcare professionals supporting autistic people with food aversion can be supportive during mealtime, introduce new foods slowly, and provide lots of healthy and familiar food options. Practice patience, celebrate victories, and don’t dwell too much on setbacks. It can be frustrating if you put effort into a meal for someone who doesn’t want it, but pressuring them probably won’t help. If anything, it will just strengthen their negative connections to food.

Involve the autistic person you’re cooking for in their meal planning if you’re noticing they’ve stopped taking pleasure in eating. They’ll probably have good ideas for the menu! And inviting them into something that intimately impacts them might make them feel more heard, seen, and cared for. 

Knowing how to identify the signs of food aversion and disordered eating can help autistic people develop healthier eating habits. Still, research on autistic adults and food aversion is particularly limited, so be gentle on yourself and your support network while you strive to improve your well-being. 

 

ARFID Resouces 

For Caregivers:

Kids Health: ARFID

Kelty Mental Health: ARFID

West Coast Feeding can be funded by AFU. It is a team of professionals who specialize in selective and disordered eating, and it is BC-wide. 

Eating Disorders Program Locator

ARFID Parents/Carers Support Group

ARFID Myths and Facts

For Adults:

Eating Disorders Program Locator

Looking Glass Peer Connection (Ages 14+) Offers programs and services for eating disorders and disordered eating, so no referral or diagnosis is needed. Includes online peer support chats and affordable counselling. 

ARFID Support Facebook Group

Counsellors and Dieticians BC Directory

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