This question was asked on an Autism Facebook group:
Q: Does anyone else have issues with getting their kids to try new foods?
My son has such a limited range of foods that he will eat. We have been trying for two years to get him interested in veggies, meat, rice and pasta other than 2-minute noodles. We have tried everything they say you must do: “smell, and one bite”, bite and spit out, try food for 20 days, stop for 20 days then try again, eating together, eating together at a table, eating without the TV, eating while watching his favourite program, and even have his teacher at the daycare try. We have involved him in the cooking process too, and he will make the food but not eat it. Nothing has worked. He eats mixed textures, so it is not textures. There is no medical issue, he does not gag when he eats. Supper takes almost 2 hours to complete, sometimes we just give up. Sometimes he will eat, play and come back to his food. But despite being on a limited diet and just above the underweight line he is healthy. But he has very little fat around his important organs, which is not good should he ever get injured.
A: If you’ll allow me, I’d like to help you understand your son’s food aversions better, as an autistic adult who has major sensory issues, because I know that it’s probably incredibly difficult for you to comprehend how things that seem utterly benign to you can be SO PROBLEMATIC for him.
The best analogy I can give you with food is the one I gave the dental hygienist a few months ago when he wanted me to rinse with a blue anti-bacterial solution and I said no. He insisted and assured me that it didn’t taste bad, and I refused again and explained about my sensory issues. “But it’s just for a moment and then you spit it out,” he said. And that’s when I started to cry.
Because you see, when I looked at that solution, my BRAIN said, “That is NOT FOR HUMAN CONSUMPTION.” I apologize for this extreme wording, but . . . the hygienist might as well have been asking me to sip on a cup of urine. And that is how your son feels when he looks at foods that he cannot eat. His BRAIN is telling him, “Those things are NOT FOR EATING.” They might as well be . . . well, poop. And so it doesn’t matter if Mum and Dad say, “But they’re lovely, and they taste nice, and they are completely healthy and good for you.” Because not to put too fine a point on it, but . . . if you looked at what was CLEARLY a poop sandwich and someone told you it was lovely and healthy, would that make YOU want to eat it any more than you already did? Probably not. Your brain would STILL be telling you: “NOT FOR EATING!!” with big flashing lights, no matter what they said.
And this is what parents need to understand about autistic kids with sensory issues around food. They are NOT “picky eaters”. They have brains that are showing them something COMPLETELY DIFFERENT from what you are seeing, and it is actually cruel to force them to eat these foods if they’re telling you that they can’t. And yes, we are painfully aware that this can lead to nutritional deficits and gastrointestinal problems–most of us have had both at some point or another throughout our lives. This is why it is a struggle, and it DEFINITELY is a good idea to talk to your kids about what flavours and textures they DO like (crunchy? soft? bland? tart? sweet?) and try to work within those to introduce what variety you can and talk to their paediatrician to make sure they’re getting a multivitamin and possibly others to supplement if necessary. It’s awful and definitely NOT the ideal . . . but neither is traumatizing them over food because the OTHER really common thing in autistic adults is lifelong eating disorders over having been made to eat things we couldn’t cope with.
Could it be Environmental?
Q: I just need to understand, and I am sorry if things sound blunt or disrespectful, how do you go from eating everything to “I cannot eat this”? When you have had a previous experience with a food item, you know how it tastes and smells and feels and you liked it – all of a sudden it is like you have never eaten it before and not going to try it. What causes that switch?
A: It’s an excellent question! I wish I had a better answer, but I’m guessing that it has to do with the neurological aspect of autism, and the fact that these things are literally “chemical” and filtered through our brain’s synapses–as opposed to being “psychological” like a behaviour.
To be more clear: I think what you’re looking at is the rare, but not completely inexplicable opposite of when a person’s brain learns to “get used to something new”; which is that some weird chemical or synaptic switch has flipped in their brain that is suddenly telling them that this smells bad or tastes funny when it didn’t previously . . . but it IS an actual SENSORY PERCEPTION rather than just a behavioural decision.
Again, an example of this happening is that I started a new medication a while ago for my migraines, and it actually affects the chemical makeup of my blood in a manner similar to chemotherapy. My doctor didn’t warn me about this, but suddenly all kinds of foods started to taste bad!! I thought there was something wrong with my tastebuds! Things that I loved–chocolate, Coke, ice cream–suddenly tasted weird and terrible! It turned out that it wasn’t my tastebuds, it was literally a side effect of the medicine and my blood chemistry!! It has totally changed the way I eat (and I still don’t like Coke anymore, LOL).
In your son’s case, I’m assuming he’s not on any new meds, but over time sometimes things just change. Just like you learn to like different foods as you grow up, unfortunately, he may come to dislike some as well–a smell or may start to seem unpleasant to him, or a texture, for no real reason except that his body is changing and growing and his brain is doing the same. Sometimes this can work in your favour (I had a sweet tooth as a young child, but by the time I was 5 would have a meltdown if someone even ate a hard candy near me, I was so sensitive to the smell of artificial flavours).
The good news is that he may also start to be interested in other foods as he gets older–it just takes time and patience, and I would for sure let him lead the way, and just make stuff available to him and talk about what YOU like and are eating.