Unlocking Nutrition for Autism

By Serein Behari, Clinical Dietitian

Distinct eating habits are one of the most common concerns for parents of children on the autism spectrum. If you’re concerned about your child’s nutrition, health and overall well-being due to feeding challenges, read on!  

People with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) often repeat behaviours and have obsessive interests. These types of behaviours can affect eating habits and food choices, which can lead to the following health concerns:

Limited food selection or strong food dislikes: Someone on the autism spectrum may be sensitive to the taste, smell, colour and texture of foods. They may limit or entirely avoid some foods and even whole food groups. Common dislikes include fruits, vegetables and slippery, soft foods

Not eating enough: Kids on the autism spectrum may have difficulty focusing on one task for an extended period. It may be hard for a child to sit down and eat a meal from start to finish

Constipation: This problem usually is caused by a child’s limited food choices. It typically can be dealt with through a high-fibre diet, plenty of fluids and regular physical activity

Medication interactions: Some stimulant medications used with autism lower appetite. This can reduce the amount of food a child eats, which can affect growth. Other drugs may increase appetite or alter the absorption of certain vitamins and minerals. If your child takes medication, ask your healthcare provider about possible side effects

Prepared for pickiness

One of the easiest ways to approach sensory issues is to tackle them outside of the kitchen. Have your child visit the supermarket with you to choose a new food. When you get home, research it together on the Internet to learn about where it grows. Then, decide together how to prepare it. When you are done, don’t worry if your child doesn’t want to eat it. Just becoming familiar with new foods in a low-pressure, positive way can help your child become a more flexible eater.

Mealtime routine

A child on the autism spectrum will have to work harder at mealtimes because a busy kitchen, bright lights and even the way the furniture is arranged all are potential stressors. Making meals as predictable and routine as possible can help. Serving meals at the same time every day is one of the simplest ways to reduce stress. Also, thinking about what concessions can be made for easier mealtimes is useful. If the child is sensitive to lights, dining by candlelight is a solution. Let the child pick a favourite food to include at every meal or choose a preferred seat at the table.

Guidance for special diets

Gluten- or casein-free diet: You may have heard that a gluten- or casein-free diet can improve symptoms of ASD. While some studies indicate that these diets may be useful for some children, controlled scientific studies have not proven this to be true, so more research is needed. Keep in mind that restrictive diets require careful planning to make sure a child’s nutrition needs are being met. I recommend consulting with a registered nutritionist before making any drastic changes to a child’s diet as there can be side effects and potential nutrient shortfalls when a gluten- or casein-free diet is self-prescribed.

Substances from an ASD patient’s diet which may cause sensitivity:

Food dyes and artificial colours 

High-fructose corn syrup

Artificial flavourings

Artificial preservatives

Artificial sweeteners: Aspartame, acesulfame-K, neotame, and saccharin

Multiple supplements

Because children on the autism spectrum often have restricted diets as well as difficulty sitting through mealtimes, they may not be getting all the nutrients they need, particularly calcium and protein. Beginning multiple supplements at one time may be too restrictive of a regimen and may impede the ability to determine what’s working or not working. I recommend starting one supplement at a time for several weeks to see whether there’s an improvement in symptoms. Supplements include multivitamins, omega-3 fatty acids, vitamins D and B6, magnesium, and other nutrients such as Probiotics, Antifungals, and Digestive Enzymes.

Working with a registered dietitian

Most children, with or without autism, can be selective and particular about the foods they eat. A registered nutritionist can identify any nutritional risks based on how a child eats, choose the suitable diet and answer questions about diet therapies and supplements advertised as helpful for autism. She or he will help guide your child on how to eat well and live healthy.

For children on the autism spectrum, a nutritious balanced diet can make a world of difference in their ability to learn, manage their emotions and process information.   

You can contact Behari at s.albehari@hotmail.com