Autism, Eating and Food – Why Are There So Many Issues?

by | Feb 13, 2023 | Autism Behaviors, Parenting

Autistic adults, teens, and children commonly experience eating and food issues.

Sensory challenges are frequently the cause, but there are many others factors that contribute to the issues.

An autistic individual can experience eating or food challenges at any age, but studies indicate that even though eating difficulties can and do carry over into adulthood, they typically improve.

Studies – The Many Whys Behind Autistic Food and Eating Issues

A compilation of studies published by Science Direct, authored by Susan D. Mayes, Ph.D., and Hana Zickgraf, Ph.D., report that atypical eating behaviors are significantly more common in autism (70.4%) compared to children with other disorders (13.1%), and neurotypical children (4.8%).

The most common eating behaviors were reported as limited food preferences (88%), hypersensitivity to food textures (46%), other issues such as frequently eating only one brand of food (27%), pocketing food without swallowing it (19%), and pica (12%). Grain products and chicken (specifically nuggets) were the preferred foods for 92% of the autistic children who had limited food preferences. The issues with pica or pocketed food only involved children with autism in these studies.

A study authored by five university members from the United Kingdom, based on interviews of adult autistics, suggests that adult autistic eating difficulties stem from several areas:

  • Sensory sensitivity – food qualities (e.g., texture, temperature, taste, and smell), environment (e.g., noise, lighting, temperature)
  • Medical and physical difficulties – motor problems (e.g., difficulties chewing, using utensils, or swallowing), food allergies, gastrointestinal problems
  • Executive functioning difficultieslacking skills in regulation, control, managing thoughts and actions
  • Cognitive rigidity – lacking flexible thinking (see Dynamic Intelligence)
  • Eating disorder diagnosis (see Co-Occurring Conditions: Eating Disorders, OCD and More)

These quotes, from the interviewed autistic adults, bring clarity to why there are so many eating issues with autism:

  • Environment and noise: “I’d rather not eat in a loud restaurant or dining hall, or just anywhere where I can’t talk to people next to me or just have some peace and quiet. If I’m in an environment where there’s lots of background noise, I find it hard to filter (it) out.”
  • Sensory sensitivity: “I don’t like the smell sometimes that forks and knives have on them. So I will insist on clean cutlery, and if it smells peculiar I will send it back and get clean ones. If it doesn’t smell just right I won’t eat out of it or on it.”
  • Executive functioning: “Planning and doing things in the right order can be a big barrier to accessing food. I don’t leave my room unless I have a visual mental plan of exactly what I’m going to get, where it is, and how I’m going to get it. (I) often need a backup plan or two … I quickly give up and pick something at random … and that can result in accidentally picking something sensory-bad.”
  • Stress: “Literally forgetting to eat because I just get too busy. I don’t recognize the signals.”
  • Rigidity and routines: This refers to eating similar foods repeatedly, or forming a routine around eating, “You’re quite rigid, you’re kind of control-oriented, you’re … kind of (a) perfectionist.” Rigid thinking can also lead to meal completion, regardless of hunger, which can cause overeating and obesity.
  • Control: “I think I’m in control of everything simply because I’m in control of the facts (the food that I eat), and I know exactly why I’m doing what I’m doing.”
  • Social situations/anxiety: “How do people eat like that? I don’t get it. But I don’t want to eat like that, so I don’t feel inspired. I feel a bit repulsed actually, (so I) just sit back and observe in grotesque curiosity (and I don’t eat).” Also, “When given the choice, I always prefer to eat alone rather than with people. There’s an element of social anxiety to that. What if I spill my food on my shirt? I am self-conscious about the things I am because they’re things I would be self-conscious about if someone did them around me.”

Eating Advice from an Autistic Adult

Grace Kidd, autistic blogger, and advocate shares her insights into autistic eating issues via her blog, Not Just Picky Eaters – Autism, Samefoods, and Bland Foods, “Many of us, especially as children, get written off as “picky eaters,” but there are reasons for the way we eat our limited palates.”

Sensory input that can “send us over the edge” is the main reason she believes autistics are labeled as picky eaters. And this leads autistic people to eat “samefoods.” This is a term coined by the autistic community which describes foods that are consumed repetitively. Grace explains samefoods as:

“Go-to foods and snacks that we always love and will always eat. Things that are the same mean no stress for us! When we go for food that we know, we don’t have to worry about a weird texture or unexpected flavor…Sometimes, we can’t choke down certain foods, despite any degree of hunger, so safe foods are an option.”

Grace’s parental advice for autistic picky eating is published in an interview on the site

  • Do not force your child to eat. Encourage them without pushing.
  • Taste buds do change over the years. But (your child does) not have to like every food.
  • Keep an eye on nutrition. There is no shame in using nutrition replacements and supplements. “It is better for everyone’s mental health to get their nutrition their way and avoid constant fights and meltdowns.”

One of Grace’s most quotable quotes:

“And just so you know, there are plenty of autistic adults who eat a limited range of foods and manage to avoid malnutrition, so don’t lose hope!”

There is Hope – Managing Eating Issues Together

The RDI® program can give you the tools you need to guide you (there is no age limit!) or your child’s development, including eating issues.

And you are never alone – the RDI® Online Learning Community can give you the support and resources you and your family need.

The Community offers the most up-to-date autism research and exclusive RDI® tools, resources, articles, and presentations, as well as support from real people – RDI® professionals, adults on the autism spectrum, and other parents just like you.


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