Children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) may face daily challenges with eating and nutrition. Many children with autism experience difficulties with eating that stem from sensory sensitivities, rigid routines, challenges with assessing their level of hunger, and other factors. Nutrition and feeding therapy can ensure children with ASD receive essential nutrients while taking those factors into account. 

A therapist teaches the young child about various foods.

Nutrition Therapy for Autism Spectrum Disorder 

Ensuring a balanced, nutritious diet is fundamental to everyone's health. However, it can be particularly challenging for children with autism, who often have restrictive eating patterns due to their unique sensory experiences or need for routine. 

Nutrition therapy, guided by a registered dietitian or nutritionist familiar with autism, is designed to navigate these challenges. Professionals trained in nutrition therapy design treatment plans to ensure that the children in their care receive all necessary nutrients while working around their specific preferences and aversions.  

Nutritional therapists:  

  1. Conduct a Nutritional Status Assessment: The therapist will oversee a comprehensive review of the child’s dietary habits, preferences, and aversions. The assessment will also consider any physical health concerns, such as gastrointestinal issues, which are common in autistic children. 

  2. Develop a Personalized Nutrition Plan: Based on the assessment, the therapist will develop an individually tailored nutrition plan. This plan aims to ensure a balanced intake of essential nutrients while considering the child’s sensory sensitivities and food preferences.   

  3. Educate and Support: The therapist will educate the child and their caregivers about the importance of various nutrients and help them understand how they can incorporate these nutrients into their preferred diet. They also provide ongoing support, making necessary adjustments to the nutrition plan as needed. 

Feeding Therapy for Autism Spectrum Disorder 

While nutrition therapy focuses on what is eaten, feeding therapy is centered on the physical act of eating. Feeding therapy can help make mealtimes more enjoyable and less stressful for autistic children. 

Often provided by occupational therapists or speech and language pathologists, feeding therapy helps children overcome aversions to specific food textures, smells, or tastes and improve their oral motor skills necessary for effective eating. 

 Key components of feeding therapy include:  

  1. Sensory Desensitization: This approach involves gradually exposing the child to various food textures, smells, and tastes. The goal is to reduce the anxiety and fear associated with these sensory experiences. 

  2. Oral-Motor Training: This approach involves exercises designed to improve the muscles and movements involved in eating. For example, therapists might work on strengthening chewing muscles or improving tongue coordination. 

  3. Behavioral Intervention: This approach integrates strategies to promote positive mealtime behaviors. Behavioral interventions may entail establishing routines, using rewards, or creating a calm, distraction-free eating environment. 

A family cooking a healthy dinner together.

Autism and Eating Disorders 

Autistic children have a heightened risk of developing eating disorders, making the role of nutrition and feeding therapy even more critical. Due to common traits between autism and disordered eating, such as rigidity in behaviors and routines, a preoccupation with specific interests, and challenges in social communication, autistic children are more likely to experience conditions like anorexia nervosa or avoidant/restrictive food intake disorder (ARFID). Sensory sensitivities and issues with the ability to recognize and interpret body signals like hunger or satiety may further contribute to an autistic child’s potential for disordered eating. Thus, nutrition and feeding therapies serve as vital tools for promoting healthier eating habits as well as preventing and managing eating disorders. 

Meaghan O'Dea Johnson
Author: Meaghan O'Dea Johnson, MS, CPNP-PC