Autism and nutrition

Food aversion and sensitivities are common in individuals with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), and behavioural issues can make mealtimes challenging, particularly with children. Some autistic people have a restricted diet, eating only a limited range of food, others may over-eat.

Dietary considerations for such individuals can be multifaceted, as each person’s needs and sensitivities may vary, yet their nutritional needs are the same as the general population. However, research shows that nutrition deficiencies are more common in children on the spectrum, adding to parents and carers’ concerns.

Here are some key nutrition points to keep in mind for individuals with ASD:

  • the need for routine around mealtimes: displaying mealtimes and menu can help, as well as using the same cutlery, plates etc.
  • sensitivity to smells, sights and sound: try maintain a calm environment at mealtimes. Playing a preferred music can help distracting from food/meal related anxiety.
  • food sensitivity: when the body reacts to some foods: identify and limit exposure. Introduce new foods gradually, identifying the person’s reactions.
  • food preferences: autistic individuals can have a strong preference for foods of a certain colour (often beige), cut in a certain way, avoid textures, prefer specific brands etc. Understanding these preferences will make mealtimes easier, you can bring small changes cautiously to see what works.
  • digestive issues are slightly more common in autistic individuals, try increase the fibre content of meals (wholegrains, vegetables, pulses) and offering probiotics. Make sure they hydrate sufficiently.
  • Many autistic individuals have special interests that can be channelled into developing healthy eating habits: for example, have your child research the diet of an astronaut and build their own.
Eat like a superhero! ESA

Food diaries can be a great tool to recognise patterns. With trial and error, and adequate communication about meals and food, parents and carers can understand these preferences and barriers and can offer nutritious meals.

When to seek advice?
If an autistic person accepts a very small number of foods (less than 20), refuses a whole food group, loses or gains weight, does not develop healthily, is persistently tired, prone to infections and/or tooth decay, you should consult a GP who may direct you to a dietitian or nutritionist.