Tips for children with special needs

By Serein Behari, Clinical Dietitian

A child with autism may have one set of unique nutritional problems while a child with severe cerebral palsy will typically have a very different set of needs. Here, we discuss some of the nutritional challenges that a child with special needs may face, along with advice that may help combat these issues.

Underweight and failure to thrive

Children with special needs are especially susceptible to inadequate growth because of developmental delay and lack of interest in food. Additionally, some conditions cause an increase in metabolism – some children with cerebral palsy have frequent muscle spasms that burn calories. This makes it even harder for a child to consume enough calories because their calorie needs are higher. Other children may get fixated on consuming only one food every day. This can lead to nutrient deficiencies. A dietitian will likely suggest a multivitamin or a liquid supplement, depending on the childs individual condition. In extreme cases, a feeding tube may be required.

If you are concerned that your child may be underweight, consult your child’s physician. Assuming your child has no underlying medical concerns, my advice is to encourage weight gain in a healthy way with food. Empty calories from foods high in fat and added sugars might add a few kilos, but they will not provide the nutrients a child needs to build strong bones, a healthy body and a sharp mind.

Nutrient-rich foods

If your child is underweight, you want to ensure that most meals and snacks are nutrient-rich such as:

Good sources of protein: eggs, peanut butter and other nut butters, bean soups, homos and reduced-fat or full-fat milk, yoghurt and cheese

Excellent carbohydrate choices: whole-wheat bread and pasta, mashed, baked or oven-roasted potatoes, sweet potatoes, corn and hot cereal

Healthy fat sources: nuts, seeds and avocados

More tips

Making mealtimes pleasant for your child and not rushed

Involving your child in meal planning, shopping and food preparation to encourage their interest in food and eating

Considering a high-calorie supplement drink, if doctor recommended, for picky eaters who refuse to add new foods to their diet

Making sure that your child isn’t filling up on beverages, including juices or even milk, so that your child is hungry at meal-time

With some patience and conscientious meal and snack plans, your child is likely strike a healthy height and weight balance.

Next month, we will look at how children with special healthcare needs are at a higher risk of being overweight or even obese.

Nutritious, higher-calorie foods

Guacamole with fresh avocados, onions and tomatoes, or mix avocado into a fruit smoothie

A smoothie for an on-the-go breakfast or snack. Smoothies are an easy way to get nutrients plus calories. Get creative with your favourite fruit, full-fat yoghurt, nut butters and seeds

Granola or trail mix made with nuts, seeds, dried fruit and chocolate chips also can be mixed with full-fat yoghurt

and other bean dips not only make good snacks, they can provide both protein and fat, in addition to concentrated calories

Hot cereal prepared with milk or soy milk instead of water for added calories and nutrients

Nuts and seeds added to cereal, salads, pasta and vegetables

Avocado slices added to sandwiches, burgers and salads or as a topper for scrambled eggs

Sautéed or stir-fried vegetables, meat, chicken and fish cooked in olive oil

You can contact Behari at