Food-Part 3

The term “picky eater” can be quite an understatement when autism is involved. Part 1 of this conversation about inflexible or restrictive eating habits includes examples of the types of food issues common in autism. The podcast Food-Part 2 overviews the process involved in pinpointing the specific problem encountered by an individual with autism and scouting out all the factors contributing to the issue. In this third and final segment of the food discussion, we will look at just two basic strategies to consider when tackling restrictive food habits.

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In the case of the youngster who insists on eating spaghetti ordered in the drive through lane of a certain restaurant for breakfast, lunch, and supper, any one of a number of factors could be at the heart of her inflexibility. As is the case with some individuals with autism, she may be fixated on that one food, literally refusing to eat any other food. She may be intolerant of certain food textures, spices, or smells. She may have latched on to the order-spaghetti-from-the-drive-through-and-eat-in-the-parking-lot routine to such an extent that she is extremely resistant to any changes in that routine.

Once her family, therapists, and teachers pinpoint the specific issues involved in her unreasonable obsession with eating spaghetti and refusing to eat any other food, they can begin planning strategies to tackle the problem.

1. EASE INTO CHANGE. Whether we are trying to expand her menu or decrease her insistence on eating at the same restaurant three times a day, the inflexible youngster may be more cooperative if we make very gradual changes without fanfare. Rather than demanding she eat other foods or eat at home, we might consider a gradual transition to a new food routine. For example, the first step might visit her favorite spaghetti drive-through restaurant two times a day rather than three. The third meal could be serving her favorite spaghetti at home, or ordering a slightly different food from the same restaurant for the third meal. Another option would be to order her spaghetti at the drive-through as usual, then drive to a different place to serve her meal in the car. Use the same routine as usual, and don’t make a big deal about driving to a different place. The idea is to gradually break the repetitive cycle without fanfare.

2. REMAIN CALM AND PATIENT. This youngster, just as many individuals with autism, is quite inflexible, so it is unreasonable to assume she will respond to our insisting she eat new foods, nor that she will immediately accept a new routine. Because she is extraordinarily resistant to changes, a low-key strategy that results in incremental progress may be the best plan when we are introducing new foods or new routines for meals. So, for example, if we are serving her favorite spaghetti for supper at home after eating in the car for breakfast and lunch, we can serve her meal without fanfare in the take-out box. If she gets very upset, the situation is often best served if we remain calm, continue eating, and keep track of even tiny bits of progress.

TIP FOR THE DAY: Food issues can be very challenging in autism. These three podcasts only touch the surface of the complexities, so we are developing an Picky Eaters Toolkit for parents, therapists, teachers, medical professionals, and other interested people. Click the Toolkit tab on for more info.

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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