Picky Eating And Autism

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Does your autistic child or student have a very limited diet? Maybe they eat 3 or 4 foods and that’s it? Read part of my conversation with Brittyn Coleman, the Autism Dietitian, about picky eating and autism and how we can best support them at home and in the school setting. 

Brittyn Coleman, MS, RDN/LD, is a distinguished Registered Dietitian and Autism Nutrition Expert, known for her innovative, sensory-friendly feeding approach to nutrition for children on the autism spectrum. As the founder of the Nourishing Autism Collective, and as an autism sibling herself, Brittyn brings both professional expertise and personal understanding to her work. She empowers families with her expert guidance, helping children receive essential nutrients for optimal health and development. Her strategies are tailored to the unique dietary needs and sensory preferences of each child.

Brittyn’s influence extends beyond her membership site through her active social media presence and her popular podcast, ‘Nourishing Autism’. Her educational content on Instagram, YouTube, and other platforms has established her as a leading voice in autism nutrition, providing valuable resources, practical advice, and a supportive community for parents and professionals. 

Understanding the Journey

Tara: Can you tell me a little bit about yourself and what brought you down the path to specializing in autism as a dietician?

Brittyn: Yes, I’m a dietician, specializing in kids on the autism spectrum, and more specifically, I specialize in selective eating and how to expand the diet for kids. We know that many kids have sensory aversions or sensory processing disorders and it can make eating difficult or trying new things difficult.

It’s important to be able to have somebody on your team to be able to say, okay, how are we going to help your child meet their nutritional needs but also respect their sensory needs? A lot of times that’s the piece that is missing and people are looking at it from only the sensory side or only the nutrition side.

To have success with nutrition for autism, we need the two to come together. As dieticians, we don’t get this kind of training in school. It takes some kind of personal connection for you to dig deeper into this. For me, that’s my brother Barrett. He was diagnosed when he was two years old and he’s now 29. Barrett was always a selective eater. He had a limited number of foods. He had five foods that he would eat. I never really understood why he didn’t eat the same foods as me but as I grew up I realized there was more to the sensory side of it. My mom was a trailblazer when it came to nutrition for autism.

Autism and Picky Eating

Tara: You saw it firsthand growing up with your brother. He ate different foods than us and they were the same five foods. I can look back at specific kids I had in the classroom and I can list exactly what their foods were, sometimes they ate only one or two things and sometimes it would be five things.

A lot of kids lean toward the McDonald’s nuggets because they’re the same every time. It’s predictable, you know what they’re gonna be, and you know what you’re getting. So a lot of kids lean toward that because they know what to get, they know what to expect from the experience.

Brittyn: Either way you spin it, processed foods, fast foods, anything that is going to have some strong quality control around it is going to be the same every time. So, unfortunately, those foods don’t have all the nutrients that we need. They’re not void of nutrients though. I think that’s a misconception that a lot of people have. They think this is junk food, total trash. Then they get on themselves that their child is just eating junk. But, it IS providing some nutrition, not the optimal nutrition, but there is some in there.

Nutrition is so confusing and so I love to make it simple for parents. One thing I stress is we’re going to add before we subtract. We won’t make any drastic changes because we know that the all-or-nothing approach does not work well for autistic children. We like these gradual approaches that feel safe and comfortable and that can be expected.

Creating Trust

Tara: Many people believe if you just take the junk away they’ll eventually eat whatever you put in front of them because they’re hungry. I have over and over again seen that not to be true with my autistic students and their families.

Brittyn: Yes, there’s so much trust that’s wrapped up in food and when we stop giving them a familiar food, they lose trust in us, but they can also lose trust in food. This can also happen when we try to sneak something in. Then they’re like, wait a second, this is different and now I don’t trust it anymore and I’ve lost trust in you. So, they end up dropping the food. We want to make sure that kids trust food, they trust their caregiver who’s providing the food to them because that’s out of their control.

What is ARFID?

Tara: Many of us who work with young autistic kids know that they’re picky eaters or have extremely limited diets. Why is that? Can you also talk about an acronym I’m hearing more called ARFID?

Brittyn: ARFID stands for Avoidant Restrictive Food Intake Disorder. A lot of people think this is just extreme picky eating, but there’s a lot more to it than that. ARFID is an eating disorder. A lot of the reasoning behind eating disorders is body image, ARFID is different. It has nothing to do with body image and that’s one of the qualifying criteria. It’s extreme anxiety around food. This could be linked to trauma that happened as a child. Choking or an anaphylactic reaction could trigger it or it could be due to severe sensory issues.

Gentle Approaches

Tara: I’ve heard you talk about why we shouldn’t just ask kids to ‘just take a bite’. Can you talk more about that?

Brittyn: I come from a place where I truly do understand and empathize with parents who are just trying to do their best. The traditional picky eating advice is not going to be suitable for their child with additional sensory needs and oftentimes is going to put them in a worse place.

There are so many sensory steps leading up to taking a bite. Taking a bite is one of the last steps. It comes right before chewing and swallowing food. So what happens is we’re skipping over all of these sensory steps and it is a surefire way to put kids into overstimulation, but also ruin the trust between you and the child or the food and create some kind of negative experience with the food. The goal with food exposure is trying to have a positive experience of course.

If we can’t have a positive experience make it a neutral one. We want to do our best to stay away from negative experiences. I’ve met many adults who have said, I still cannot eat this food because I was forced to eat it as a child. That’s what I want to get ahead of. We know better now.

Tara: What are the steps leading up to ‘take a bite’?

Brittyn: So there’s many little steps and about six big steps. We go from seeing it to tolerating it in your space. To then interact with it. Meaning you touch it with the utensil or something else, just not your hand. The next one would be touching, then smelling, tasting, eating. So there are big chunks where you’re introducing it to each sense one at a time. It is a gradual approach.

Collaborative Support

Tara: In the past 25 years I’ve seen a lot of different adults, personalities, and kids with different kinds of levels of limited diets. Some families might be thrilled that their child’s eating three different foods right now and they know if we start pushing it more at school, it could set their progress back. Can you talk about the importance of talking to the child’s parents to make sure we’re supporting what they want?

Brittyn: I think it’s important to talk to the parents because some might love it if you expose them to new things. They may be more comfortable at school if they see other kids eating. But in the case that they’re in some kind of feeding program, we want to make sure that we’re allowing the experts to do the work. So there may be a specific approach that they’re responding to or something that they’re working on. We don’t want to set them back if they’re making progress.

Tara: How would you recommend talking to your support staff about why the typical approach to picking eating isn’t the best?

Brittyn: The approaches that we use, even very sensory oriented, are very individualized. different approaches are gonna work better for different kids. I think that it’s important to understand that it is an individualized approach that we have to follow

The autistic community has started being more clear about the term picky eating. They now prefer the term selective eating. The reasoning behind this is that it’s not a choice. This child isn’t just choosing to eat five foods. There’s so much more ingrained in this. Sensory reasons, oral motor challenges, low muscle tone, and gut issues.

Safe Foods

Tara: You talked a little bit about safe foods. Can you just give a little overview of what that term means?

Brittyn: Safe foods would be the foods that your child feels the most safe around. It often comes down to the sensory profile of these foods. The reason why they have these safe foods is because they feel very predictable. They feel comfortable. Food can give us quite a bit of nervous system feedback as well when we’re eating food that is comforting to us.

This also triggers our parasympathetic nervous system, especially crunchy foods, which I find a lot of kids prefer. It triggers the vagus nerve and our parasympathetic nervous system, which is our rest and digest versus fight and flight. So it is something that can be biological, that the child is looking to find comfort and calmness and regulation in the food that they’re eating.

So we start there and then we try and find foods that are going to have a very similar food sensory profile to the foods that they already prefer. Maybe that’s another food coming from a box. What we’re after in the beginning is gaining comfort and confidence around foods. Gradually we can expand outward and we can get fruits and veggies and whole grains. Diet change takes time.

Get Connected With Brittyn Coleman

Tara: Tell me about your membership, The Nourishing Autism Collective.

Brittyn: My specialty is selective eating. That’s why most people come to me. But I also support people who have kids who struggle with gut issues, especially constipation. That’s the number one gut concern for most parents. Which goes hand in hand with selective eating. Then we also have parents who are joining who just want to optimize and make sure that their diet is the best it can be. We can also do lab testing. I generally have those three groups of people or some kind of combination. That’s how I support families in my membership. We have these individualized tracks where you come in, you take a quiz, it sorts you in there and it helps you through your biggest nutritional concern.

Listen to this podcast episode here, or watch it on YouTube by clicking here.

Related topics:

Interoception

Routines

Self-Regulation

If you use visual supports in your classroom or home, you are going to want to sign up for this free Visual Supports Starter Set ASAP! Click here to have one sent to your inbox. Also, be sure to read more about visual supports and how they can help autistic children here.

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