Food-Part 2

What factors contribute to various food-related problems common in autism? How can we effectively address these challenging situations? Obviously, we cannot answer those questions in a brief podcast, so let us just consider one specific, real-life situation, that of a youngster who insists on eating just one food for breakfast, lunch, and supper.

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The family of this six-year-old diagnosed with autism is glad she has finally started eating solid foods. Until recently, she only ate food blended into a fine puree. Although she has moved past that stage, her inflexibility rose to the surface again when she refused to eat any food other than spaghetti. She will only eat the spaghetti purchased in the drive-through of a certain restaurant, then insists on eating in the car.

Because some of my friends with autism have obsessions with junk foods, eating nothing but a certain type of corn chip or only French fries, I was interested in this youngster’s fixation on a relatively healthy food like spaghetti. She does not have a gluten intolerance, so spaghetti provides some grains, vegetables, and protein. The family is, understandably, concerned about her inflexibility, about their budget, and about the logistical problems that arise from driving to the restaurant three times a day.

Fixation on certain food is a very real issue in autism. The obsession is not something that will necessarily disappear if families and teachers are firm. The first step in solving this issue of the youngster’s obsession with spaghetti is to pinpoint the problem. These are just some of the questions that come to mind.

How does she communicate her desire to eat spaghetti from that restaurant? How does she react if spaghetti is not offered as an option and she is served food at home? If she has a temper tantrum, how does the family react?

Is the youngster fixated with the food or with the routine? Would she eat spaghetti from another restaurant if it were picked up at the drive-through and eaten in the car? Would she eat another food if the drive-through and eating in the car were involved? Sometimes we assume a person with autism is inflexible about the actual food when they may be, instead, obsessed with the routine of the meal process.

Once the family, therapists, and teachers have gone through the process of pinpointing the problem – scouting out the extenuating circumstance and probable causes for the inflexibility and fixation on a certain food, they can develop some strategies for gradually encouraging this youngster to expand her menu a bit and for gradually introducing a new food routine that does not require driving to the same drive-through restaurant three times every single day.

TIP FOR THE DAY: Tune in to the final segment in this series, “Food-Part 3” for some ideas for shaping obsessive eating habits. Click on the Toolkit tab at to see our new Pinpoint Behaviors Toolkit. It is filled to the brim with step-by-step process for scouting out issues related to a challenging situation.

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 a confidential email at with your thoughts or challenging situations or innovative solution. 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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