It is great to see so many schools embracing healthy eating week, but for autistic children and young people and their parents it can be an additionally challenging time.
Autistic children can have restricted diets, specific eating habits and routines or anxiety around food and mealtimes. For them, healthy eating week can be especially hard, and not at all enjoyable or fun! It can also be a difficult time for parents, who may feel pressure to change eating habits and guilty when they are not successful. The reality for some autistic pupils is that eating habits are really fixed and change is hard.
Textures, smells and taste can be off-putting to any child, but the experience may be exacerbated for autistic children and young people with heightened sensory processing. For some children who are hyposensitive, these things can be overwhelming and the main thing they focus on. One boy I worked with once described toast as hurting his mouth and feeling like sandpaper.
How food tastes to us can change in different places and over time, and this can be one of the reasons why some autistic children develop eating patterns where they stick with foods that are very predictable. Often, this can be potato-based food such as crisps and chips! It might also explain why they only want a type of food from a specific brand or place.
Furthermore, the experience of the school dining hall – often noisy, with lots of activity and movement – can present additional sensory difficulties. Indeed, rigid routines around eating usually have a function, and this is often about feeling safe and trying to stay in control.
If these routines are not harmful, it’s worth considering whether they are really a problem. I once helped with a young person who was distraught because the staff member wanted him to eat his food in a certain way. He wanted to eat all his peas first, then all his potatoes, then his pie. The adult wanted him to have a forkful of each in turn. It does not matter! We all have things that are important to us.
Nevertheless, it is good to encourage healthy eating and if you are considering marking the week in your school, you can support any autistic students in your community by considering the following:
- Talk to parents to find out more about what foods their child struggles to eat and why.
- Talk to other staff and agree a consistent approach. Do not respond emotionally, or with strong verbal or facial reactions.
- Allow participation in cooking activities, for example making a smoothie without any pressure to taste. Being able to tolerate some foods in proximity is sometimes an achievement.
- Any mention of food can cause anxiety, so a whole week of talking about food is a lot to cope with. Consider what opportunities the child has to engage in low-stress and favoured subjects and activities.
- Focus on other areas that build the child’s self-esteem.
- Set realistic goals and celebrate achievements (but do not make too much fuss!)
- Introduce any new foods slowly.
- Have fun wherever possible. For young children, messy play with a variety of foods can be a fun way to feel safer around eating them.
Eating can be a stressful experience for autistic children and young people, who may feel overwhelmed by the smell or texture of food, as well as a busy, noisy dining environment. Remember: they are not being ‘fussy eaters’ or behaving badly, and the more pressure we put on them the less likely they are to feel safe around trying a new food.
By following some simple steps, it is possible to encourage good eating habits and to celebrate healthy eating week in an inclusive way. And if a child’s eating is really of concern, then talking to parents about the support they are receiving and seeking medical guidance from a school nurse are better avenues to address the issue than any classroom intervention alone is likely to be.