Compulsive Snacking

Parents and teachers often comment on the challenge of preventing youngsters with autism from compulsively eating unhealthy foods or devouring all the snacks in the pantry. Some individuals must avoid certain foods because of dietary restrictions or diabetes, and others are compromising health with too many calories or unhealthy snacks. One parent commented that their son often sneaks in the kitchen and tries to hide bags of chips or cartons of ice cream in his room. The family is searching for ways to decrease his compulsive snacking and to prevent explosive reactions to their attempts to limit his snacks.
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First and foremost, it is up to us to remove temptation for compulsive eaters. Without ceremony, just quietly slip all high-calorie or unhealthy snacks or other foods that are off-limits from the house or classroom. It is not appropriate at all to expect our friends with autism to simply ignore the ice cream in the freezer or the Oreos stashed away for the rest of the family to enjoy. The tempting, unhealthy snacks simply must not be available. The same is true if your friend has dietary restrictions and tends to raid the pantry for restricted foods.

The next step is to introduce a plan for shaping new eating habits. Sometimes I hear family members say things like, “No more snacks for you, young man. They are making you fat and ruining your dinner,” or “Starting tomorrow, you are going on a diet. No more ice cream or cookies for you.”

Rather than making threats or issuing edicts, try the more positive approach. For example, this particular young teen is really tuned into routine and loves to watch the clock. In his case, the family and teachers might say something like this, “Guess what! Starting tomorrow, you get to have a GREAT SNACK ADVENTURE! You get to pick out a snack at 10 a.m., 3 p.m., and 7 p.m. So, watch the clock, and you get to pick a yummy snack from this box at 10, 3, and 7.” Then show him the box filled with a dozen or so snack-sized zip lock bags filled with a variety of healthy snacks. Follow through consistently so the youngster gets to pick a snack from the box every time the preplanned snack time rolls around – without fail. Of course, you would pick snack times that fit with your youngster’s schedule and you would select snacks that take into consideration any dietary restrictions.

This is just one idea of a positive, pro-active approach to helping curb the unhealthy habits of an individual with autism who is a compulsive eater. It may give you some ideas for developing a strategy to meet the unique needs of different individuals. We welcome your ideas about the issue of compulsive eating. Just click on the comments button or send an e-mail to

NOTE TO READERS AND LISTENERS: I am Cathy Knoll, a board certified music therapist and long-time friend of many folks with autism. At we are committed to providing free, practical, everyday tips for making life better for people with autism. Feel free to send me an email with your thoughts or challenging situations or innovative solution. Send email to And don’t forget to check out our website for a wealth of ideas and a glimpse into the world of autism.

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